Modernmoonman. Science Fiction book reviews.

Science Fiction Book Reviews and Stuff...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Blindsight vs. War Against the Rull

Blindsight was written by Peter Watts and published in 2006.  It's a novel about a ship sent from earth to have a first contact with an alien species.  It's much like the first Alien movie (that's a compliment), with 300+ I.Q. Vampire for a Captain and a crew of misfits and sociopaths; the crew is as monstrous as the aliens they were sent to investigate.  Mr. Watts is a marine biologist, so the alien life forms are very smartly designed and fascinating to read about.  This is a hard science fiction novel with a strong biology foundation and some of the ideas covered are:  the science of linguistics, the evolution of empathy, vampire biology, theories of vision, alien anatomy, and physiology.  A main theme that runs throughout the novel is that of "Blindsight," about how sometimes you can't see something that is right in front of your face:

     "Vision's mostly a lie anyway," he continued.  "We don't really see anything except a few hi-res degrees where the eye focuses.  Everything else is just a peripheral blur, just...light and motion.  Motion draws the focus.  And your eyes jiggle all the time, did you know that, Keeton?  Saccades, they're called.  Blurs the image, the movement's way too fast for the brain to integrate so your eye just...shuts down between pauses.  It only grabs these isolated freeze-frames, but your brain edits out the blanks and stitches an...an illusion of continuity in your head."
     He turned to face me.  "And you know what's really amazing?  If something only moves during the gaps, your brain just ...ignores it.  It's invisible."

This is some smart (REALLY SMART) and creepy Science Fiction. Watts keeps the suspense high throughout; this is a great, hard to put down read for a dark winter night.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *                             VS.                              *     *     *     *     *     *

War Against the Rull was written by A.E. Van Vogt and published in various magazines and book forms from 1940-50.  I started reading it immediately after writing the Blindsight review, and noticed many similarities.  I compared Blindsight to the A.E. Van Vogt inspired movie Alien; I should have compared Blindsight to A.E. Van Vogt's War Against the Rull, and will do so here.  War Against the Rull will be now known as WATR.
(Spoiler alert.)  (Really.)  So, let's compare and contrast these novels:

ALIEN VILLIAN:
Both books feature humans fighting against aliens that control the electromagnetic spectrum:  WATR describes the aliens (Basically segmented worms in appearance) that "possess the amazing ability to alter and control certain electromagnetic waves, including the visible spectrum, with the cells of their bodies--an inheritance from the chameleon-like worms from which they are believed to have evolved."  That's it, that's the info, and then Van Vogt moves right along to the adventure stuff.   

Blindsight, on the other hand, gives page after page of incredible scientific detail, a dissection, as well as over 100 footnotes to reinforce the hard science of it all.  The "scramblers" as they are called (basically multi-jointed arms from a central mass; kinda like an intimidating starfish, or octopus,  in appearance) are basically a biologist's dream come true: "The same thing applies to the eyes.  Hundreds of thousands of eyes, all over the cuticle.  Each one is barely a pinhole camera, but each is capable of independent focus and I'm guessing all the different inputs integrate somewhere up the line.  The entire body acts like a single diffuse retina.  In theory that gives it enormous visual acuity."

TREATMENT OF ALIEN VILLIAN:
In WATR, when the Rull are captured, they are killed; this attitude is mainly prevalent due to a a failure of diplomacy.

In Blindsight, when the Scramblers are captured, they are tortured ruthlessly, for the sake of "gathering intelligence."   (Then they are also "exterminated", though their fate remains ambiguous...in an intergalactic suicide anti-matter bombing mission...)  I realize there hasn't been a film made of this yet, (but if there was it could be sooo great; better that Tarkovsky, another Kubrick perhaps?)  Sequel anyone?

EXISTENTIAL SITUATION:
In WATR, "Human beings have created what they call civilization, which is in fact merely a material barrier between themselves and their environment.  The barrier is so complex and unwieldy that merely keeping it going occupies the entire existence of the race.  Individually, man is a frivolous, unsuspecting slave, who spends his life in utter subservience to artificiality and dies wretchedly of some flaw in his disease-ridden body.  And it is this arrogant weakling with his insatiable will to dominance that is the greatest existing danger to the sane, self-reliant races of the universe!"

In Blindsight, Scramblers "were the norm.  Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence.  And we--we were the flukes and the fossils.  We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores."

MAIN CHARACTER:
In WATR, Jamieson is a standard hero-type; brave, quick-witted, charismatic, has great moral fiber, can keep a secret, etc.  Most importantly, he tries to make allies and befriend every race he comes into contact with, eventually earning the title "Administrator of Races" and becomes the great unifier of the galaxy.

In Blindsight, the main character Siri had half of his brain removed and possesses absolutely no empathy whatsoever.  Ostracized by his fellow crew members, he is a spy, a player, and the opposite of Jamieson, the WATR protagonist.  Similarly, both characters injure their right hands in their respective books...this means absolutely nothing, yet Modernmoon digs the coincidence...

THE STRUGGLE:
The struggle in both novels isn't about the physical struggle involved in traversing great distances, or surviving in a life support coffin through light years of travel, or even being brought back to life in the ship's infirmary 6 times; no those are the Mechanics of Science Fiction; the Struggle is: to overcome Mind Control.  In WATR"With a desperate will, he fought to retain his senses a moment longer.  He strived to see the lines again.  He saw, briefly, flashingly, five wavering verticals and above them three lines pointed to the east with their wavering ends.  The pressure built up inside him, but he still fought to keep his thoughts self-motivated."

In Blindsight, "But it's not in charge, You're not in charge.  If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you."  Who is in control here? It really is the blind leading the blind?  What exactly is nature?  Is kamakaze the norm to determine the outcome of a struggle in nature??

CONCLUSION:
In WATR, Jamieson's attitude of  "good will towards men" (and aliens) wins him many allies that eventually become indispensable to his final goal of ending the War against the Rull.  He actually even earns the respect of the Rull, and they go far away to another galaxy.

In Blindsight, Siri ends up hurtling through deep space a light year away from Earth, en route to "bear witness" to the fate of the crew and the first contact with the Scramblers.  Turns out, their whole mission was totally dictated by their ship's Artificial Intelligence computer program, and they were sent to meet the Scramblers, get some info, and wipe them out of existence with a preemptive strike that nobody knew about.  Even the Vampire Captain was just a figurehead of fear, there because the crew "disliked taking orders from machines."  The ship was in charge the whole time.  The crew was used, the Aliens slaughtered; scramblers take a hostage/specimen just like the crew from Earth did......the end?

MODERNMOONMAN:
Perhaps these two novels could be mirrors held to society, and that from them, and a comparison of their differences, we could glean some insights into some real world attitudes...Do we need these two novels to do this?  Probably not.  But we will here; sometimes fiction is only as good, (like anything else), as the thoughts and content that you bring to it; the lens that you look at it through...  Perhaps these Science Fiction tales can be a comment on WW2, The Holocaust, 9-11, War (in general), Guantanamo Bay, torture, free will, following orders, as well as a look at the differences in  American Attitudes towards International and Domestic Relationships (Race, Rulls, Blacks, Scramblers, Gays), from the 1940's to the present day (Science Fiction can do something?  How?  It's so white...too white...smells like privilige...entitlement...and where are the women?  (plenty of green)  where are the blacks?) o.k. with some Blindsight Perhaps we could somehow decode the differences between similar situations separated by mere decades, we could see a sea change in ourselves, and be able to say, see?  It WAS different then, before we were born, it was a simpler time, and it was easier to be heroic...

But NO, it wasn't easy, ever;  In our time we had 9-11, in Van Vogt's time they had the Holocaust, so it never was any better, was it?  So you can't just come along and say:  and now, it's a huge mess from the top on down just a mass of corruption, no matter what you do there is no real authority, no real responsibility, just the adherence to the program that holds the strings in a world of puppets where "Truth never matters.  Only fitness." It was always this way, it will probably always be this way: Somewhere, somebody is "en route to extinction"-... Modernmoonman had to cross a desert to get here but:  THE TRUTH AT LAST!!

"You think you'd be able to fight the strings?  You think you'd even feel them?" How do you even know you've crossed the line (a moral line) if you can't even see it?  Clear vision matters.  The will to see clearly, matters.  The way we act matters.  This is the theme in War Against the Rull, as well as Blindsight:  "They told you you were the stenographer and they hammered all of these layers of hands off passivity into you but you just had to take some initiative anyway, didn't you?  Had to work out the problem on your own.  The only thing you couldn't do was admit it to yourself."  Cunningham shook his head.  "Siri Keeto.  See what they've done to you."  He touched his face.  "See what they've done to us all," he whispered...

Political content in Science Fiction is not just wishful thinking; it's in the text!: (from Blindsight:)

"You decode the signals, and stumble:
I had a great time.  I really enjoyed him.  Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome--To fully appreciate Keysey's Quartet--They hate us for our freedom--Pay attention, now--Understand.  There are no meaningful translations for these terms.  They are needlessly recursive.  They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisin by chance." 

Note the "They hate us for our freedom..."  This novel is from 2006; Watts puts it in there :
I had it.  The "Big Picture":  "You rationalize, Keeton.  You defend. You reject unpalatable truths, and if you can't reject them outright you trivialize them.  Incremental evidence is never enough for you.  You hear roomers of holocaust; you dismiss them.  You see evidence of genocide; you insist it can't be so bad.  Temperatures rise, glaciers melt--species die--and you blame sunspots and volcanoes.  Everyone is like this, but you most of all.  You and your Chinese Room.  You turn incomprehension into mathematics, you reject the truth without even hearing it first." I had it, "The Big Picture," I knew who was in control, I saw the strings, I read between the texts, between the lines of 2 fictions...I have had my vision...and now it's gone...

p.s.s.: This a bonus text from Blindsight:

"Evolution has no foresight.  Complex machinery develops its own agendas.  Brains--cheat.  Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music.  The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art.  Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection.  Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.  It begins to model the very process of modeling.  It consumes ever more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations.  Like parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself.  Meta processes bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sci-Fi in Hi-Fi

Vintage Sci-Fi covers slideshow lifted from youtube.  

Roller Coaster World

Roller Coaster World was written by Kenneth Bulmer and published in 1972.  It's a space romance with a heavy Aldous Huxley/Brave New World vibe, and the story of how sinner Douglas Marsden turns into a very reluctant Jesus-figure in a pleasure city on Parsloe's Planet, a nearby earth colony. Robots do all of the manual labor, so the population has unlimited free time to pursue things like sports, astrology, affairs, Exisensi ( interactive movies that play in your mind) and the 24-7 party.  They are also totally addicted to a speed-like stimulant called Parsloe's radiation, and are swiftly destroying the planet as they consume this limited resource.  Their cities on wheels score this radiation drug, leaving destruction in their wake.  The whole population is wired: they talk and do everything at incredible speeds, only sleeping two hours a day, and even then, they don't have to have their own dreams as a computer dreams for them.  It is through Marsden's struggle that Bulmer breathes life into his standard theme of transformation from drug-induced, artificial-exisensi, happy-slavery to a new frontier of drug-free, natural-reality, unhappy-freedom.   The women in here are pnumatic man eaters, so no happy hollywood ending is even remotely possible, only the "poor bastard" kind.  Regardless, this space romance is another good one from Bulmer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Modernmoonman song of the week= Ornette Coleman/ Rock the Clock

From the album Science Fiction from 1971. Wah-wah bass at 1:06!

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain, was written by Michael Crichton and published in 1969.  Alien virus lands on earth, is lethal, team of scientists do the CSI in the CDC, much suspense and drama for a novel that reads like a biology textbook, you know how it ends cos we're still here...nice try, virus.

The book was sci-fi of the hard kind:  hard science and hard to stop reading.  There is a film; here's a picture from it:

A for Andromeda

A for Andromeda was written by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot for a British T.V. series in 1961, and a novel was published in 1962.  Earth scientists pick up an alien transmission, which turn out to be instructions for building a big super-computer, which enables them to grow an embryo that grows into a woman with an alien intelligence who is foxy but bad, then foxy but good.  This novel probably inspired Carl Sagan's Contact, as the idea of extraterrestrials contacting earth using binary code or the language of mathematics is a good one. Pretty cool, pretty fun, pretty girl in the T.V. show from 1961:



Julie Christie in A for Andromeda



Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rose

The Rose, written by Charles L. Harness, was published in the U.K. in 1953, and published in the U.S. in 1969. It was nominated for a "Retro Hugo" in 2004.  It's remarkable how a novella with the wimpiest and most unappealing cover in the history of Science Fiction contains, as Michael Moorcock states in the introduction, "true stories of ideas, coming to grips with the big abstract problems of human existence and attempting to throw fresh, philosophical light on them."

Charles L. Harness's The Rose is a sci-fi romance loosely based on Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose.  It's also an evolution story, a kind of chess game of Science vs. Art, and a look into the process of creating a musical masterpiece entitled "Nightingale and the Rose."  It has reams of great text:

"Science is functionally sterile; it creates nothing; it says nothing new.  The scientist can never be more than a humble camp follower of the artist.  There exists no scientific truism that hasn't been anticipated by creative art.  The examples are endless.  Uccello worked out mathematically the laws of perspective in the fifteenth century; but Kallicrates applied the same laws two thousand years before in designing the columns of the Parthenon.  The Curies thought they invented the idea of 'half-life'--of a thing vanishing in proportion to it's residue.  The Egyptians tuned their lyre-strings to dampen according to the same formula.  Napier  thought he invented logarithms--entirely overlooking the fact that the Roman brass workers flared their trumpets to follow a logarithmic curve."

"Boyle's gas law, Hooke's law of springs, Galileo's law of pendulums, and a host of similar hogwash simply state that that compression, kinetic energy, or whatever name you give it, is inversely proportional to the amount of it's displacement in the total system.  Or, as the artist says, impact results from, and is proportional to, displacement of an object in it's milieu.  Could the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet enthrall us if our minds hadn't been conditioned, held in check, and compressed in suspense by the preceding fourteen lines?  Note  how cleverly Donne's famous poem builds up to it's crash line, 'It tolls for thee!'  By blood, sweat, and genius, the Elizabethans lowered the entropy of their creations in precisely the same manner and with precisely the same result as when Boyle compressed his gasses..."

This kind of discourse takes up much of the novella.  I suppose what makes this story sci-fi is the scientist's quest for Sciomnia, or the highest possible aim of human endeavor, which for the scientist is the creation of the perfect weapon, and the "ability to control the minds and bodies of men."  The artist tries to counter this power by the transformative power of art, and the mutation that only selfless love can manifest, as the characters vie for the title of homo superior, racing to a great climax and a performance of the 'Nightingale's death song':

"The melody spiraled heavenward on wings.  It demanded no allegiance; it hurled no pronunciamento.  It held a message, but one almost too glorious to be grasped.  It was steeped in boundless aspiration, but it was at peace with man and universe.  It sparkled humility, and in an abnegation there was grandeur.  Its very incompleteness served to hint at its boundlessness."

The Rose is science fiction of a very playful and sophisticated style, far removed from the lumbering hardware of most space operas.  The writing is intense, well crafted, and a joy to read.  As an added bonus, Harness writes of an inconvenient truth, a concept borrowed decades later by another lover of sci-fi:


  
"Since the middle of the seventeenth century the mean temperature of New York City has been increasing at the rate of  about one-tenth of a degree per year.  In another century palm trees will be commonplace on Fifth Avenue."


The book has two other stories:  "The Chessplayers," about a mouse that plays chess, (it's hysterical), and  "The New Reality," a great Adam and Eve tale that asks a favorite sci-fi question, "what is reality?"  The variety of rose depicted on the book's cover is called "hybrid-tea," which is yet another piece of fine trivia brought to you by Modernmoonman. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers was written by Robert A. Heinlein, and published in 1959.  It's a classic military adventure Sci-Fi book, and an account of recruit John Rico's struggle as he goes from boot camp to battlefields in "The Bug War" against the "Klendathu," with plenty of shoot 'em up action against an awesomely formidable foe.  The bugs, battle suits, and invasion capsules are plausible, but the novel is really about the coming of age of the soldier of the future.  Heinlein spends much of the novel writing about the rigorous training, the discipline, the code of honor; in describing the qualities and characteristics that make a space infantryman what he is.  The pages that describe Rico's whip lashing make him a sympathetic figure indeed.  Heinlein is equally adept at discussing the reasons for soldiering and the novel asks many questions such as what is moral sense? and what are natural rights?

     "What is 'moral sense'?  It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive.  The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it.  Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations.  This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.
     "But the Instinct to survive," he had gone on, "can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive.  Young lady, what you miscalled your 'moral instinct' was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival.  Survival of your family, for example.  Of your children, when you have them.  Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale.  And so on up.  A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual's instinct to survive--and nowhere else!--and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts. 
     "We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level.  Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race--we are even developing and exact ethic for extra-human relations.  But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: 'Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.'  Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing."

Heinlein is really good at writing the gung-ho officer speeches.  How about 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'?:

     "Ah, yes, the 'unalienable rights.'  Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry.  Life?  What 'right' to life has a man drowning in the Pacific?  The ocean will not hearken to his cries.  What 'right' to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children?  If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of 'right'?  If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is 'unalienable'?  And is it 'right'?  As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives.  Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes.  Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.
     "The third 'right'?--the 'pursuit of happiness'?  It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right;  it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore.  Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can 'pursue happiness' as long as my brain lives--but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it." 

"Liberty must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots?"  That sounds really familiar; Jefferson's  phrase seems to get a lot of use lately...  "The tree of liberty must be watered regularly by the blood of patriots..."



The novel Starship Troopers has plenty of philosophical meat to sink your teeth into, and Heinlein does a great job depicting the military industrial complex of the future.

The Paul Verhoeven movie Starship Troopers is very different than the book; liberties were taken, it has some cringe-worthy moments, but is really good when it comes to blazing battle action and the propoganda of 'kicking-ass'.  Here's the trailer:


Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Six Million Dollar Man TV Intro

I had to put this on here.  This is the first time I've actually been able to translate Japanese.  (They took the English version off of youtube; this one might even be cooler...)  If you listen closely, you'll notice that, unlike the English version, the last word spoken is "Cyborg," which of course is the name of the book the show is based on:


Sure, the show was pretty cheesy, but Steve Austin... he was an astronaut, and back in 1975 an astronaut was a heroic figure, someone you could look up to, someone you could aspire to be... Now, the space program is a shadow of it's former self, you think anybody wants to be an astronaut today?  I mean look at what they give us for astronauts these days:



Steve Austin is better than an astronaut: he's a bionic astronaut, a Six Million Dollar Man!

In Spanish he's known as "El Hombre Nuclear!"  Sci-fi helps you learn other languages!  Time/Life just issued the complete collection on DVD.  Is that awesome, or what?

Solaris

Solaris was written by Stanislaw Lem in 1961, and published in translation in 1970.  This is an account of an encounter with a sentient ocean on an alien planet.  This "ocean"  has the power to create a different reality for all of the scientists who encounter it, and each encounter is a descent into madness.  The descriptions of the alien world are fascinating; Lem really knows how to write about things that are so alien as to be unknowable.  There is much philosophy, too:


"We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything; for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death.  Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves.  And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham.  We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.  For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.  We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange.  We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact.  This is another lie.  We are only seeking Man.  We have no need of other worlds.  We need mirrors.  We don't know what to do with other worlds.  A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is.  We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own, but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.  At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence.  We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us--the part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence--then we don't like it any more."

Solaris is haunting and beautifully written. 

Saw the Tarkovsky  film; (well 3/4 of it, then the copy from the local library just died), so I hadda go to youtube for the ending... (Spoiler alert) here's the last scene (spoiler):  It's pretty great, but the book is better I.M.H.O.:



Friday, December 17, 2010

Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was written in 1985 and according to the lists I've seen, is widely considered to be the #1 Science Fiction novel of All Time.  I liked it too; the writing style is so smooth that it reads like a dream...I am left with mixed emotions about it though; and have a bunch of questions: (spoiler alert...)

  1. If Ender is such a brilliant strategist, wouldn't he have been able to anticipate the fight is the bathroom, and prepare better for it, or avoid the whole thing altogether?
  2. Does he know he is being used by the military?  If so, does he care?
  3. Does his victory against the buggers make him a hero?  Can one become a hero by accident?  If you are playing a video game and win, then someone informs you that the battles you were playing were real, and that the kills you scores in the game were real deaths, and you have just saved the world, are you a heroic figure?  Can you be a hero if you don't know the truth about your situation, the true stakes of the conflict and the real consequences of your actions?
  4. Are you a hero just because someone with "authority" says you are?
  5. Is a civilization that uses children to fight wars worth saving? 
  6. There's a movie in the works; will Ender be the Sgt. York of our time?
  7. If you are what you love, and Ender's Game is the #1 Science Fiction book of all time, what does this say about our society?
The good thing about Science Fiction books is that the good ones can give you things to think about, and  Ender's Game certainly does that...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Time Machine


The Time Machine was written by H.G. Wells and published in 1895.  This is Wells' first published story, about a time traveler who travels to the future to discover a society where the upper class, the childlike "Eloi," live above ground on the surface of the earth, and the lower class, the savage "Morlocks," live underground in a subterranean world:

"Again, the great exclusive tendency of richer people--due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement if their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor--is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.  About London, for instance, perhaps half the prettier country is shut in against intrusion.  And this same widening gulf--which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations toward refined habits on the part of the rich--will make that exchange between class and class, the promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent.  So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.  Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears.  Some of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die; and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs.  As it seemed to me, the refined beauty and their etoilated pallor followed naturally enough."


Unlike his When the Sleeper Wakes, the upper classes seem to be more sympathetic to Wells in this wicked little (80 pages!) cautionary tale of science-fiction, as the Morlocks are treating the Eloi like stupid cows and are eating them!

This is what happens when there is no middle class!

That Wells, ahead of his time, as usual...






The Diamond Contessa

The Diamond Contessa was written by Kenneth Bulmer and published in 1983.  It's book 7 in his "Keys to the Dimensions" series.  The series consists of:
  1.  The Key to Irunium (1967)
  2. The Key to Venudine (1968)
  3. The Wizards of Senchuria (1969)
  4. The Ships of Durostorum (1970)
  5. The Hunters of Jundagai (1971)
  6. The Chariots of Ra (1972)
  7. The Diamond Contessa (1973)
I never read the first 6, but it was no problem as far as I'm concerned.  This novel is about Harry Blakey, who is a war veteran and a porteur (a man who can teleport himself to other dimensions.) Things move along in the novel as we are guided through portals to dozens of dimensional worlds, and meet other species along the way; there is plenty of inter-dimensional perversion, as Harry seems to bed every attractive female he encounters, and even being enslaved by the Diamond Contessa doesn't stop him from knockin' boots with her...

There is a thrilling battle at the end that where our Hero, in full armored battle suit, tries to kill the charismatic and seductive Diamond Contessa.  The battle rivals any in Starship Troopers.  She, incredibly, goes mano a mano with our hero, is defeated and lives to fight another day, but alas, this is her last fictional appearance.  This book is worth reading just for the great climax at the end, it's quite a romp, and I'll pick up the others in the series when I come across them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Doomsday Men

The Doomsday Men was written by Kenneth Bulmer, and published in 1965.  This is a novel that examines what it's like to live in a city that's under the shield of a protective dome, and the consequences of isolationism:

"How can we stop this country from sinking into final degradation and decadence?  You all know how everyone is going sour, rotten, the filthy practices, the murders, the seething violence, not only in the city--where thank God we can exercise a measure of control--but now seeping into the clean countryside.  We are so introverted, so much a part of our own cesspit, that we are all doomed unless we can let in the fresh clean air of the outside world!"

It's also a future/noir detective yarn, where the detectives have the technology to connect with the dying brains of murder victims, and invade their minds a la the movie Inception.  They get to relive their death and solve crimes; only some people have decided to sell the technology to young criminals so they can replay the deaths for kicks....Bulmer crafts a pretty cool book here, a little dated in a mid-60s mod squad kinda way, but rewarding nonetheless.

Caves of Steel

Caves of Steel was written by Issac Asimov and published in 1953.  The Caves of Steel are the protective domes that cover major cities in this vision of the future, and this novel investigates how humanity might be affected by dome conditions, psychologically and physically.  It also investigates how humanity will be impacted living in a world where the existence of robots is widespread.  Some questions the book raises are:  What makes an authentic human being?  What is friendship?  What and where is the frontier?  R. Daneel Olivaw and Lije Baley are great characters (they are downright lovable), and Asimov has crafted a book that is as provocative as it is charming. I've been told that the sequels to this book The Naked Sun and Robots of Dawn are even better; I can't wait to find out...

Bonus:  Asimov solves our energy problem: "Petroleum had long since gone, but oil-rich strains of yeast were an adequate substitute..."   Neat!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Brave New World

Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley in 1932, and like George Orwell's 1984, is one of the most important books in Science-Fiction.  The future depicted in Huxley's dystopia is, unlike Orwell's pain-filled vision, a pleasure-filled civilization that is engineered from (test tube conditioned) cradle to (mandatory death at 60) grave.  There are 5 levels in the social heirarchy, each conditioned to believe itself superior to the others. There is plenty of sex (pnumatic girls) and drugs (soma) for all, but no parents, morals, religion, art, individuality, responsibility, or free-will:

"It's an absurdity.  An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work--go mad, or start smashing things up.  Alphas can be completely socialized--but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work.  Only an Epsilon can be expected to make epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren't sacrifices; they're the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he's got to run.  He can't help himself; he's foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he's still inside a bottle--an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course," the Controller meditatively continued, "goes through life inside a bottle.  But if we happen to be Alphas, our bottles are, relatively speaking, enormous.  We should suffer acutely if we were confined in a narrower space.  You cannot pour upper-caste champagne-surrogate into lower-caste bottles." 

Brave New World isn't just a dire cautionary tale about the perils of technology; alternately grim and humorous, it's a delight to read.  The importance of this book is considerable, and even President George Bush mentioned Brave New World when discussing his hope and health crushing attitudes towards stem-cell research...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Science Fiction Hall of Fame 2a

As of this writing, I've only read the first two stories in this volume.  The first  "Call Me Joe," is by Poul Anderson and is the basis for the movie "Avatar."  The second story is "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., which was the basis for John Carpenter's "The Thing" film, so it seems to me that even if the rest of the stories lack, this book is solid gold.

When the Sleeper Wakes

When the Sleeper Wakes was written by H.G. Wells in 1899.  It's about a man named Graham who wakes up after a 200 year sleep to find that he alone is the top 1% of the world economy.  There are some visionary concepts in here; he predicted: television, flying machines, advertising, banking, pleasure cities with incredible architecture and moving walkways, but it's mainly a book about class status and social stratification of the future and the struggle against the totalitarian empire.  Wells was a prophet; over 100 years ago he wrote this:

Very speedily power was in the hands of great men of business who financed the machines.  A time came when the real power and interest of the Empire rested visibly between the two party councils, ruling by newspapers and electoral organizations--two small groups of rich and able men, working at first in opposition, then presently together....
The urgent necessity of either capturing or depriving the party councils of power is a common suggestion underlying all the thoughtful work of the early twentieth century, both in America and England...
The counter revolution never came.  It could never organize and keep pure.  There was not enough of the old sentimentality, the old faith in righteousness, left among men.  Any organization that became big enough to influence the polls became complex enough to be undermined, broken up, or bought outright by capable rich men.  Socialistic and Popular, Reactionary and Purity Parties were all at last mere Stock Exchange counters, selling their principles to pay for electioneering.  And the great concern of the rich was naturally to keep property intact, the board clear for the game of trade.  Just as the feudal concern had been to keep the board clear for hunting and war.  The whole world was exploited, a battlefield of business; and financial convulsions, the scourge of currency manipulation, tariff wars, made more human misery during the twentieth century--because the wretchedness was dreary life instead of speedy death--than had war, pestilence and famine, in the darkest hour of earlier history.


'Nuff said!

The Invincible

The Invincible was written by Stanislaw Lem in German in 1967, and published in English in 1973.  It's a pretty straightforward adventure story about an alien encounter, but the quality of the writing lifts this book far above standard fare.  The alien life form is truly alien, and the book is about the crew of the Invincible trying to comprehend it's nature.  The tension in the book escalates, and the end confrontation with the alien "cloud of biots", Lem outdoes himself with some beautiful writing.  The writing is atmospheric because the alien is atmospheric:

"Not with horror, but rather with numbed awe and great admiration had he participated in the fantastic spectacle that had just taken place.  He knew that no scientist would be capable of sharing his sentiments, but now his desire was no longer merely to return and report what he had found out about their companions' deaths, but to request that this planet be left alone in the future.  Not everything has been intended for us, he thought as he slowly descended."

This book is a real gem.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon, written by Richard K. Morgan, was published in 2002.  Takeshi Kovacs, the main protagonist in this novel, is so hardcore he makes Hook: the Boosted Man seem like a creampuff.  The technology in this novel is of the type designed to let people live forever.  Death is conquered now that conciousness can be downloaded onto computer chips, and bodies are re-usable sleeves to be worn like clothes.  This helps keep the ultra-violence in this novel fast and furious novel as blood runs like water and has just as much value.  And the attitude?  It's like this:

"The personal, as everyone's so fucking fond of saying, is political.  So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally.  Get angry.  The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here--it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft-.  Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide out from under with a wink and a grin.  If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them.  Make it personal.   Do as much damage as you can.  Get your message across.  That way you stand a far better chance of being taken seriously next time.  Of being considered dangerous.  And make no mistake about this:  being taken seriously, being considered dangerous, marks the difference--the only difference in their eyes--between players and little people.  Players they will make deals with.  Little people they liquidate.  And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it's just business, it's politics, it's the way of the world, it's a tough life, and that it's nothing personal.  Well, fuck them.  Make it personal."

So in this sci-fi-noir, lots of crazy shit happens, and some scenes involving some super-phermones and a 300 year old woman in an 18 year old sleeve I had to read twice because I couldn't believe what I was reading.  So this is modern sci-fi? Wow!: Hot Stuff!

On the Symb-Socket Circuit

On the Symb-Socket Circuit was written by Kenneth Bulmer and published in 1972.  This is a crazy book that utilizes many of Bulmer's favorite themes: evil corporations, a population enslaved by pleasure, a conception of future sex as loose-ish.  The scenery in this book is fabulous, everyone is fabulous and dressed up like a peacock, everyone is petting their alice (live life-support system, aka symbiote,) and parties and orgies break out 24-7.  If this was ever made into a film it could be visually stunning.  There is a sexy nun character that is just great.  Some action and adventure shoot outs in the orchard vs. giant alien killer bees type stuff, but it's mainly about the characters and the struggle to confront corrupt corporations and demand the life they deserve, not the life the company wants to give them.  This novel is good stuff.

Hook: the Boosted Man

Hook: the Boosted Man was published in 1975 by Kenneth Bulmer writing as Tully Zetford.  This is science-fiction action at it's finest.  Ryder Hook is a teched-up superman with a hard heart of gold.  Sure, he threw somebody out of a skyscraper in Vol. One (Hook: Whirlpool of Stars), and then used their corpse as a landing pad, he's basically a righteous guy.   Here in volume two, he still doesn't like to be used, and he's once again freeing his fellow crash survivors from slavery, and Bulmer/Zetford really comes through in setting the scene here, and he really does a good job describing the work/play cycle as the slaves are worked to death.  The slaves are drugged to think they're in heaven, and Hook still gets off on being in the drug-enhanced super-speed "boosted" state, so though druggy themes abound, it's still mainly about class warfare as Hook gets the workers of the world to unite as he ups the violence and rips out the spines of the evil overlords.   The scenes where Hook awakes from his brainwashing are particularly effective:

     Hook lifted his silver spoon of strawberries and cream and looked at Anthea, whose lithe and voluptuous figure sat so closely to his on the padded gilded chairs under the roseate lamps.
     A trilling tingling started along his spine.  The silver spoon vibrated.  By the great savior, as they said, Anthea could set a man's blood on fire!
     The trilling persisted.  A silver fog obscured his vision.  He felt his bones rattling in his skin.  He looked at the cheap plastic spoon in his hand and the nauseous slop dripping from it to fall into the scummy pool in the cracked dish on the filthy table.  Anthea was cuddling up to him laughing.  Her dull orange coverall was stained with grease and dirt....
      He saw the battered metalloy cup with the foul water scumming the rim, and he saw Anthea lift it to her lips and drink, and heard her say: "This champagne is the best I've drunk!"
     And he knew.

Hook's the motherf#@king man.  The end of Vol. 2 finds him about to jettison a dozen sedated boosted women into space; hope he finds a better use for them in Vol. 3 & 4...

Behold the Stars

Behold the Stars was written by Kenneth Bulmer, in 1965.    Characters are pretty undeveloped, but the science and scenery is pretty cool.  The military is using matter teleporters, and aliens called the Gershmi are using teleporters, and the crux of this novel is that someone is screwing with the technology so that both races lose their will to fight when they use their matter transmitter boxes...an attempt to end a war light years away...of course they don't lose their will to fight at the same time, so some space shenanigans ensue...
It's 120 pages!  Short but sweet.

Cycle of Nemesis

Cycle of Nemesis, by Kennith Bulmer, was published in 1967.  I think the cover is kinda cool, with that goofy looking monster and the caption "When time's vault opens..." could have been the inspiration for the Shrike in Simmon's Hyperion...I dunno.  This book is like some kind of English comedy routine...nothing is serious, the characters don't take anything seriously, except for like 2 pages of Lovecraftian doom, then it's back to the "I say, let's have a drink old chap..." as the  robot butler fixes some cocktails...kind of amusing, hard to care about, that's all.

Hyperion

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, was published in 1989.  This book is like taking seven of your favorite sci-fi books and mashing them together and making them relate somehow to each other and to an elusive foe called the Shrike.  Sure, one story seems based on the "Eloi" of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, one is kinda William Gibson-ish cyberpunk, one is kinda golden age Van Vogt space opera, one purports the poetry of Keats ("Hyperion") to be sci-fi, the time-tomb concept may come from Bulmer, etc., etc.  Sure, he knows how to synthesize past sci-fi, but this only makes his sci-fi boulliabaise richer.  The Shrike is a great, terrifying "villian," (instead of a cross, he's got a miles high tree made out of metal razors that "seats" hundreds of thousands...) He's the horrorshow they must confront...

This masterpiece has a killer cliffhanger, too!

A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, is for those who like their sci-fi "soft," or with little emphasis on the "science" part of sci-fi.  Still, this volume (the first in a series of 11) has it's charms.  This volume doesn't exactly explain how John Carter is teleported to Mars, and the description is rather mystical.  Once there, there is technology: guns, flying warships, and incubators, but there is also a lot of swordplay.  The highlight of the book for me was when John Carter, utterly smitten with the foxy Dejah Thoris, states:

"They were brave men and noble fighters, and it grieved me that I had been forced to kill them, but I would have willingly depopulated all of Barsoom could I have reached the side of my Dejah Thoris in no other way."

Too funny...
This book is also the blueprint for the Adam Strange of DC Comics' Mystery in Space fame, so there's that:

Rendezvous with Rama

Some people like their science-fiction hard.  The harder the better.  Rendezvous with Rama, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1973, for me, practically defines "hard" sci-fi.  The ideas and concepts explored in this masterpiece create what I like to call "the sense of wonder" like no other book I've read.  Clarke takes the cylinder concept from H.G Well's War of the Worlds and investigates it, creating a world that is utterly convincing.  The technology explored in here is so interesting and the atmosphere of fascination Clarke creates is so palpable, it's almost, (I hate to say it), a magical reading experience, and the reader is sucked along for the ride in this un-put-downable book.  With technology this interesting, you don't even need characters.  Top-notch stuff.

Rama doesn't look like this, but this is the general concept:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Demolished Man


The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester was published in 1951 and was the first Hugo award winner.  It's about a murderer on the run from a police force made up of telepaths, and hits the ground running from the start and doesn't let up until the bitter end.  It's the most realistic depiction of telepathic powers that I've encountered, and the tension in the chase runs high for the entire length of the book.  Bester gets pretty avant-garde with the typefaces and text layout in places, like where the telepath has to search through the minds of people in a crowd, yet is skilled at making the jumbled thoughts interestingly confusing, and creates the experience for the reader in a clever way that really works.  Good stuff.

Voyage of the Space Beagle




The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a consolidation of stories published in 1939 and the early 1940's by A.E. Van Vogt, is cited as one of the inspirations for the 1970s movie Alien.  It's a great read, once you get past the mumbo-jumbo about the science of "Nexialism," which I suppose is kind of related to Van Vogt's love of "next-step-in-mental-evolution" concepts like the "Null-A" philosophy...

The adventures in this book are pretty cool, even if the crew never learns and actually invites an alien species into their spaceship with dire results not once, but twice!  Still, the description of the predatory alien species are wonderful; anything that inspired the awesome Alien movie is o.k. with me, and this is a fun read.




Slan

A.E. Van Vogt's Slan was first published in 1940, and it is an account of Jommy Cross, a member of a race of telepaths called Slans, and his attempt to overcome intolerance and restore the race of Slans to their rightful place in the universe.  There a lot of racial themes about the relationships between humans, slans, and tendril-less slans, so can it be a relatively progressive template for race relations in general?  I dunno, but it does have one of the most unforgettable characters in all fiction: the vile granny.  It's amazing a movie hasn't been made of this book.  Good stuff.

World of Null-A

The World of Null-A, first serialized in a pulp magazine in 1945, and published in hardcover in 1948, is A.E. Van Vogt's vision of a Non-Aristotelian (Non-A, then Null-A) future.  The World of Null-A is essentially Einsteinian, and Gilbert Gosseyn has to overcome Aristotelian and Newtonian thinking in order to save his world and himself.  This means he must evolve and think in terms of gradations instead of A or B/ Black or White/Either-Or type of primitive responses to reality; he also evolves his brain to have extra powers.

Here is a sample of the text:

"THE NEGATIVE JUDGMENT IS THE PEAK OF MENTALITY.   It was like a sigh across the centuries.  Some of the reality of meaning, as it affected the human nervous system, was in that phrase.  Countless billions of people had lived and died without ever suspecting that their positive beliefs had helped to create the disordered brains with which they confronted the realities of their worlds."

Some cool philosophy, some progressive politics, some thoughts about the nature of sanity, and a killer twist ending make this a real winner.  Great stuff.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend, written in 1954 by Richard Matheson, packs more grist of human experience into 159 (!) pages than I would have thought possible.  It is impossible to put down, and has spawned 2 or 3 good film adaptations, "Omega man" with Charlton Heston, and "I Am Legend" with Will Smith.  The films are good, but the book is better.  It's another end of the world/doomsday scenario, with out hero Richard Neville surviving and waging war vs. scores of plague mutated vampires.  You know that hopeful ending in the Will Smith film?  It's not in the book, and the ending is pure doom.   Awesome stuff.

Childhood's End

"Man has invented his doom, the first step was touching the moon..."- Bob Dylan (License to Kill)

Published in 1953, this gem by Arthur C. Clarke details how when mankind reaches a certain technological plateau, earth will be visited by aliens  (Overlords) who will monitor homo-sapians as they reach their next step in evolution into something else...first developing psychic powers, and ultimately some sort of trippy merging of the species takes place, in a kind of psychedelic homage to Teilhard de Chardin's "Noo-Sphere" concept...

It's hard to believe the amount of ideas crammed into these mid-century stories that are only 200 pages long.....does anybody write 200 page books anymore?  Modern writers need at least 600 pages to tell a story like this, but I digress.  Thinking about evolution.  Great stuff, and truly visionary.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day of the Triffids






The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was published in 1951, and is a story of how earth is invaded by an alien species called "Triffids," which are a man-sized, stinging, sentient, and mobile carnivorous plants.  It rips into the action and suspense right from the get-go, and doesn't let up until the end.  It kind of reminds me of "The Walking Dead" t.v. series, in that it's not really about the monsters, but about what people will do to survive desperate circumstances, and how people retain their humanity when there is nothing left, in an end of the world scenario.  Survivalist fiction.  The writing is great, the invasion plausible, the characters are well written; it's 190 pages of high octane thriller: great stuff!

1984



1984 by George Orwell is a timeless classic because as more time passes from it's 1949 publication date, the less fictional it becomes.   The book abounds with Orwellian bon-mots like: "Who controls the past," ran the party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."  and:  "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-forever."  This book reveals how power uses technology to trap, enslave, and control mankind.  These traps: eternal warfare, media manipulation, surveillance, spying, brainwashing, and torture, are maybe more pervasive than ever. 1984 details the "persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living."   Winston and Julia, the main protagonists, undergo terrifying, thrilling, truly scary ordeals.  Their scientific destruction is troubling because they really are heroic figures brought low by overpowering forces, and because the book is so well written, sometimes it's hard to remember that they are fictional characters.  The world of terror Orwell creates is one of the most compelling reasons for the existence of Science-Fiction: to be a reminder that dehumanizing traps of life are everywhere: sometimes in plain sight, but more likely to appear slowly over time, and are sometimes impossible to discover until it's too late...

This book is a case study in how power maintains power by using technology as a tool of pain to maintain the state of control.  1984 is a mirror, and really should be read in tandem with another English science-fiction classic, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," which is a study in how power maintains power by using technology as a tool of pleasure...two sides of the same coin, both books cannot be recommended highly enough.