Thursday, September 17, 2015

1983: Foundation's Edge

I had hoped that Foundation’s Edge would be at least mediocre since the original books were good but alas no.  Foundation’s Edge is the worst book to the Hugo since 1955’s They’d Rather be Right, which an observant reader may remember is generally considered the worst book to win the award.
                Foundation’s Edge is set over a hundred years after Second Foundation. The Foundation is at the height of its power. It controls, directly or indirectly, around half the planets in the galaxy and recently resolved a Sheldon Crisis (the turning points in history where Sheldon would appear in holographic form to discuss what is happening). Most of the population believes that the Second Foundation has been completely destroyed. Except for councilman Golan Trevize. He has a long tedious debate with Mayor Harla Branno, leader of the Foundation, which ends with him exiled from Terminus. This is all an elaborate cover, however, as the Mayor actually wants him to go search for the Second Foundation. So she gives him an advanced ship and companion, the historian Janov Pelorat. Obstinately they are looking for the original world of mankind. At the same time, ambitious Second Foundationer, Stor Gendibal, is sent to follow them. What follows is a very talky story where plans within plans are revealed and the fate of humanity is determined by the generally unlikable Trevize.
                Foundation’s Edge commits the biggest sin a book can commit: it’s boring. Much of the book is taken up by meetings and dull conversations as characters endless debate philosophical or political matters. I am not saying that the book needs to full of wiz bang action but something needs happen. Characters travel to a place, talk, then travel to a new place and do the same thing. This structure might work if any of the places they traveled were interesting. But that does not happen. The planets that they visit are not interesting. Asimov’s whole galaxy is uninteresting. There are no aliens, no exotic living creatures, and no strange political systems. The book states that every planet that can bear life only had microbes when humans arrived and were all seeded with earth planets and animals. When Trevize and Pelorat visit a planet outside the Foundation space, the place feels no different from Treminus. Even the Second Foundation’s society of telepaths is not really that different. Everyone even speaks exactly the same language! It’s too orderly and too pat. Asimov showed in The Gods Themselves that he can create different societies but there does not show here at all. Great science fiction should make me want to learn more about a world but I could not care less about this one.
Asimov’s fourth Foundation book also does the worst thing that a sequel can do: it undoes much of what was great about the original works. The point of psycho-history is that it used mathematical modeling to deduce the movements of human history on a galactic scale. In Foundation’s Edge this that idea is tossed aside as the mental machinations of powerful telepaths shown as the real power behind history. The telepaths on the planet Gaia (spoilers) are so powerful that they negate everything else from the book. Asimov even managed to ruin The Mule, the most interesting characters from the previous books, by making him a runaway from Gaia rather than a true mutant. The whole book reminds me how George Lucas wanted to change original Star Wars Trilogy to confirm to the prequels instead of understanding that it was the originals that were better and the new stuff needs to conform to it.
All this begs the questions if it is so terrible why did Foundation’s Edge win the Hugo? My guess is that it something I’m going to call the Phantom Menace Syndrome. In 1998, I went to see Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opening day. When it was over, I lied to myself and said it was great. I wanted to believe it was great because I loved Star Wars so much and because we the fans had waited so long for a new movie. It was only after viewing it a few more times (too many honestly) that I came to realize that it was not a good movie and worked against much of what was great about the original trilogy. I have a feeling that many people felt this way about a new Foundation book. There was a nearly 30 year gap and Asimov admitted that he wrote it on the urging from his publisher. Fans wanted to like so it won. It’s a shame because The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (3rd book in the Book of the New Sun tetralogy) was also nominated and is a far more deserving winner. Really I can’t promote that series enough.

How disappointing it turned out this badly.. I hope that the next winner, David Brin’s Startide Rising, will be an improvement, though even how disappointing Foundation’s Edge was, it should not be too hard. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Special: The Foundation Trilogy

This time, as I mentioned in the last blog post, I’m going to do something a little different. The 1983 Hugo Winner is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, the fourth book in his Foundation series. Having never read this seminal series, I figured that it would best to do so before proceeding to the fourth book. The Foundation series also won the Hugo for Best Over-all series in 1965 and has had a tremendous impact on a number of prominent individuals from Newt Gingrich to Paul Krugman.  
                So I sat down and the read them (the cover above is similar to the paperback I used) and found they were… good. Good with scattered moments of greatness. I do not find them better than two of the other nominees for Best Over-All series, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The books are classic “Golden Age of Science Fiction” for all the good and ill that loaded expression holds. Asimov creates a lot of big ideas that remain impactful on science fiction but the books themselves tend to be very talky and with little real tension. Let’s look a little deeper into the books themselves and see what works and what does not.
                The Foundation Trilogy is composed of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The trilogy begins on the city world of Trantor, capital of the Galactic Empire. Hari Sheldon has created a new discipline of science called Psycho-history. Psycho-history allows Sheldon to predict the course of history on a galactic scale and he has found that the Empire is decaying and will collapse in the next few hundred years. What’s more, Sheldon has found that the galaxy will plunge into chaos and barbarism for 30,000 years before a new empire will rise. Using his psycho-history, he found a way to reduce this “Dark Age” to only a thousand years. Imperial authorities, unsurprisingly, are not happy with Sheldon’s predictions and seek to try him and his followers for treason. They flee and found the Foundation on Treminus, a strategically unimportant planet at the edge of the galaxy. Obstinately founded to compile knowledge for a Galactic Encyclopedia, the real purpose of the Foundation is theto serve as the seed for a new empire.
                Foundation follows the first 150 years or so of the Foundation and how it outwits and eventually absorbs the surrounding barbaric kingdoms.  It was interesting how Asimov has the leaders of the Foundation win through maneuvering and cunning rather than military skill. The only problem is that it all seems too easy. The Sheldon Plan, as the Foundation’s goal of re-establishing the empire is called, is taken as flawless and each of the Foundation leaders in the story easily outwit the enemies. No setbacks; everything just falls into place. While the story was interesting there was no tension to keep me invested. I never had a feeling of danger or that much of anything will go wrong. That’s the biggest problem with this trilogy since, except for one part, everything works swimmingly. Additionally, life just seems to be comfortable all the time. Treminus is economically poor but the life styles seem solidly middle class. I was amused how much everyone smoked (every meeting, of which there are a lot, people are offering one another cigars) and how everything is atomic this or that. Nothing wrong with either thing, just amusingly anarchistic.
                Foundation and Empire is much more interesting. Not for its first half, which shows how the Foundation defeats the remnants of the old Empire, since the conflict hits most of the same beats as those in the first book. Asimov hints at the great battles that are taking place but does not show the reader much of them.  It’s the second half of Foundation and Empire where Asimov introduces the first real challenge to the Sheldon Plan: The Mule. The Mule is a mutant that can manipulate the emotions of those around him and turn his most hated enemies into loyal friends. The Mule is a great character and his story is far and away the best part of the trilogy. With the introduction of The Mule, Asimov finally brings some uncertainty and tension to the story. It was here that I first felt any surprise reading this trilogy.
                Second Foundation was a bit of letdown after Foundation and Empire. The beginning of the book features the Mule but a majority is taken up by the Foundation’s search for the Second Foundation. The Foundation was built on the physical science while the Second Foundation was built on social sciences especially psychology. I found it strange that Asimov gives so much credit to psychology. The Second Foundation’s mastery of psychology basically gives them the same power as the Mule but only on a much smaller scale. A great deal of the novel is taken up by conversations between characters about what Sheldon meant when he said that the Foundations would be at opposite ends of the galaxy. The main character of the story is Arkady Darell, the granddaughter of the hero from Foundation and Empire, Bayta. She is a precious and generally likable character but her travels around the galaxy just feel too safe. She ends up on a faraway planet with strangers but I almost never felt any sense of danger.
For a supposedly chaotic galaxy, it seems pretty orderly. There is a no sense of lawlessness by the third book. No “Mos Eisley cantina” or a hint of underlying messiness to society. Asimov seems far too structured in his approach to fiction to allow for that and I feel it hurts the galaxy he has created. Few characters are morally gray and most are fairly stock. The writing is standard Asimov: direct and without any great stylistic flourishes. The Mule sections are some of his very best writings.  They have more dramatic flair and inventiveness than anything else he wrote.
Still there is much to like in The Foundation Trilogy. Asimov pioneers ideas such as a Galactic Empire (interestingly he views this as a good thing while Lucas used the Empire as the villain), a city that covers a whole planet, destiny as mathematical, and even the holophonor from Futurama is directly based on viso-sonor from Foundation and Empire. I can see why The Foundation Trilogy appealed to so many people, especially the scientific minded. The trilogy postulates that humanity can find order in the chaos and create something better by means of a mathematical plan. I personally don’t buy but the appeal is there.

I am glad I read The Foundation Trilogy at least to see what all the fuss was about. Next time, I will review Foundation’s Edge, the long awaited follow up. See you next time, dear readers. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

1982: Downbelow Station

                Wow. After 5 years and nearly 30 books, I have finally reached the Hugo for my birth year. It has been a great ride and I am happy to report that a great book won in 1982: C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. Cherryh weaves a complex tale of war and those caught into the middle of it centered on one planet, Pell’s World, and the station the orbits above it.
                Downbelow Station begins with a rather lengthy future history about mankind’s space exploration and the events that brought about the “Company War.” In many books, such an opening would be a dry read and a lazy move by the author. Not so here. I found Cherryh’s future history fascinating and it helped me understand the novel and the characters’ motivations better than if she had weaved into the story or, worse, gave massive exposition dumps as part of the narrative (some other books, which I will talk about in the next few reviews, are very guilty of this). Knowing the history makes the book easier and more enjoyable to read. A novel about World War II would not be as interesting if I did not know anything about what caused the conflict in the first place. The novel takes place in 2352 and for the last three hundred years mankind has spread slowly to new solar systems. At first the Earth Company (space exploration is a private, rather than public enterprise) expands with mining stations around uninhabitable planets. Expansion is slow since it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light when exploration begins. The Spacers who live on merchant ships are away for so long that they develop their own unique and separate culture from Earth. The same goes for people that live on space stations. Humans find the 10th system they travel to has life and is named Pell’s World after the captain that found it. The planet is populated by the Hisa, primitive sentient ape-like creatures. Soon afterwards other suitable planets are found. One of these planets, Cyteen, becomes powerful and eventually leads a Union of other planets against the remote Earth Company. Earth builds 50 battleships to control the outer worlds. As the novel begins, attrition has worn the Earth Fleet down to only a dozen ships. The stations and merchants are caught in the middle of this war.
                Downbelow Station is a story about survival. The merchants and the stationers are trying to survive the conflict between the Union and the Company, the Company Fleet is trying to survive without resupply (Earth has lost interest in the conflict), and Cyteen and the Union are trying to create an independent society. Cherryh jumps around between numerous characters to emphasis the struggles each character is going through. The mess of conflicting interests makes it easy to sympathize with even some of the worst characters though the author is clearly most sympathetic to the suffering of the inhabitants of Pell Station and the refugees that fled there from other stations. The author captures the messiness of space travel that most other science fiction writers tend to ignore. The book spends a good deal of time on the logistical difficulties created by the influx of refugees from other stations. Most other science fiction writers make space travel seem generally comfortable and sterile. It was a nice change of pace.
                Probably the aspect I liked best in the novel was Cherryh’s focus on the cultural differences that rose between the different human societies. The Earth Fleet, Merchants, Cyteen, and Pell Station all have different cultures based on their environment. Pell Stations integration with the Hisa is the most developed culture in the book. The Hisa will work for the humans and even speak a Pigeon English but they are unable to understand human work ethics, time, and culture. Sometimes they will work but sometimes they just goof off and will not come back besides threats of violence or material enticements. The Hisa worship the Sun (which is blocked by clouds a majority of time on their world) and work on the station itself for a chance to be closer to it. Of all the societies in Downbelow Station, Cyteen seems the most alien. It is a new world and the inhabitants have created azi, genetically created clones to fulfill many of the worker and soldier roles since it would not be possible to find as much labor as needed without them. There is not a great deal of information about them in Downbelow Station but Cyteen won the Hugo in 1989 so I am certain I will learn more about Cyteen society in the future.
                Downbelow Station was a great novel and worth addition to the Hugos. That said, I do not believe it should have won in 1982 because one of the nominees is a fantastic novel. The book is The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe. The novel is the second in Wolfe’s Book of the New Urth tetralogy. In my opinion, the whole tetralogy is one of greatest works of science fiction ever written. I am not alone in this opinion. Neil Gaiman stated that it was the greatest work of science fiction of the 20th century. The book is translation of the Autarch Severian the Lame’s journal. Severian was raised by the Tortures Guild millions of years in the future so far, in fact, that the sun is cooling. It is a dense complex work of fiction that I plan to reread soon. Severian is writes the account of his travels after he has become Autarch (essentially Emperor) and is not a reliable narrator. The reader gets the impression that Severian is not always telling you everything you need to know and occasionally lies. Additionally, he does not explain much about how his world works since many parts are second nature to him but unknown to us. The tetralogy is like the Lord of the Rings in that it should be viewed as one whole work rather than separate pieces. Parts of the series were nominated other years as well so this will not be the last time I will write about Gene Wolfe.

                I am glad I read Downbelow Station and I am excited to read Cyteen in the future. For my next review I am going to do something a little different (again). The 1983 winner is Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov, which is the fourth book in his Foundation series. The original Foundation trilogy won the Hugo for Best Overall Series so I felt I had to read it first. Tune in next time where we see what all the fuss is about. 

Gene Wolfe Claw first edition.jpg

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1981: The Snow Queen


                The Snow Queen, Joan Vinge’s 1981 Hugo-winning novel, is tale of romance and adventure mostly set on the water world of Tiamat. Tiamat exists in an unusual solar arrangement: its sun is close to a black hole and is cut off from the rest of the humanity for 150 years at a time. During that time, the traditionalists “Summers” rule the planet while the “Winters” rule during the 150 years of contact. It’s an intriguing premise for a science fiction tale that is mostly entertaining even though it is bogged down with world building problems and annoying main characters.
                The world-building is generally strong in The Snow Queen despite a couple of problems. Vinge creates a society on Tiamat that is fairly different from our own. As mentioned before, Tiamat is divided into two groups of people, “Summers” and “Winters.” The Summers live simple lives further south while the Winters are more modernized and prefer city life. Despite the fact that the two main characters, cousins Moon and Sparks, are Summers, the read does not get much of a look at Summer society. The majority of the story takes place on Carbuncle, the planetary capital, during the end of the regime of the Winter Queen, Arienrhod. Both Summer and Winter society are female-led. Tiamat society is sexually liberated yet still practices slavery and underground alien creature fights. I found it an interesting twist that Sparks, the male cousin, was the one at risk early on in the book of being sold into sex slavery.
Two main problems exist with the Summer/Winter dynamic. First is more of writing the second is a world building problem. I don’t know if it because Vinge might have strong anti-modernization feelings or what but almost every Winter is a terrible person while most of the Summers are innocent and naïve. This is made clearer as Sparks becomes Arienrhod’s right hand man. As he becomes a Winter he becomes a more terrible person. Horrible people as prominent characters are not a bad thing (Arienrhod is an evil woman and she is the most interesting character in the book) but I would have liked more of a balance. The problem with the world building is that I find it hard to believe that Summers could truly take over as cleanly as they do. Summers destroy all the technology when they come to power and the planet goes into a mini-dark ages. Winters would fight back considering they lose both political and economic power. Vinge partially explains this as the rest of human civilization keeps most technology off Tiamat and what they do export is flawed so that Tiamatians (Tiamatese?) cannot learn how to build it themselves. I find it hard to believe more people would not try to break this system (there are a group of smugglers who trying to do this but their work does not born much fruit). Outsiders want to keep Tiamat weak so they can control the trade in Mer’s Blood, a substance only available on Tiamat.   
                With the Mer’s Blood, Vinge clearly took a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Tiamat is a marginal world (like Arrakis) but possesses a unique substance that makes the place important. Mermaid like creatures called Mers live in Tiamat’s oceans and their blood stops the aging process in humans. The Winters hunt the Mers almost to extinction while they remain in power. The numbers are allowed to replenish during the reign of the Summers. It’s a good idea and Vinge’s explanation of why Mer’s Blood works as it does and the purpose of the Mers is interesting and well executed.
                The characters in The Snow Queen are a mixed bag. I found the two main characters, Moon and Sparks, annoying and childish. Their romance also disturbs me a little because they are first cousins. They are also quite young for much of the book which does not help. Sparks reminds me of the clichéd emo characters that exist in many animes and Japanese video games. It’s not the most flattering comparison. Moon’s behavior is a bit too erratic and I generally just did not find her interesting. Arienhrod, the titular Snow Queen, is a much more interesting character. She does a lot of evil things in the novel but all of them as part of a plan to free Tiamat from domination by the rest of human civilization. She wants “Winter” to continue after interstellar travel becomes impossible and for Tiamat to advance in technology. Her methods and plans are brutal and often heartless but I could not help myself from rooting for her.
                The book moves along at a brisk pace for the most part and Moon’s trips to other planets were some of the highlights. I appreciate that Vinge took the time to give the minor worlds unique cultures. In fact, I would be interested if more of the book takes place on these other worlds rather than some of the drawn out ending.
                The Snow Queen is a solid though not remarkable science fiction book. It is a little bit of a letdown after The Foundations of Paradise. I would still recommend it to other science fiction fans but with a few reservations.

                The next blog will be about Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I am excited for this one since it won the year I was born. Also, it is the second time that I have read one of nominees. The first time was 1977 when one of the nominees was Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune. As of next blog, I will not only compare the winner to other Hugo Winners but also to the other nominees if I have already read them. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

1980: The Foundations of Paradise


I really need to read more Arthur C. Clarke. Of the “Big Three” of science fiction (Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke), Clarke is becoming my favorite. He is a more talented writer than Asimov and does not get bogged down in political or philosophical musings to the same extent as Heinlein. This factors that made Rendezvous with Rama one of my favorite Hugos from the 1970 are on display in 1980’s winner, The Fountains of Paradise.
                The premise of Fountains is not nearly as enticing as Rendezvous with Rama, however. When I read the description on the back of the book I was not encouraged. The plot, boiled down its core, is how an engineer creates the first space elevator. That’s it. No exploration and no sense of discovery. A space elevator is giant structure that links the planet’s surface to a satellite so people and objects can be moved easily and cheaply up into space. An interesting and practical idea to be sure but not something on which to base a whole book.
Yet Clarke makes it work. He keeps the premise firmly grounded in hard sci-fi but gives it an interesting human elements as well. The book delves into an interesting parallel story about King Kashyapa I of Sri Lanka and his construction of the city of Sigiriya and a place on top of a giant rock. The place looks so interesting that I want to visit it myself. The major conflict of the first half of the story is convincing a group of Buddhist monks to give up their monastery so that the base for the elevator can be built there. Like Rendezvous with Rama, the conflict feels minor and not the real point of the goal of the narrative. The only tension in the book occurs in the last section when the protagonist, Dr Vannevar Morgan, takes a one-man vehicle up the elevator to save a group of trapped researchers. Clarke sticks to the hard sci-fi approach here as Morgan has to balance his oxygen use and momentum to make it to the group in time. It is a gripping segment that surprised me a bit since the rest of the book is so sedate.
The Fountains of Paradise is a great book but I would still place it behind Rendezvous with Rama on my list of Clarke’s works. Fountains lacks the sense of wonder that Rendezvous had. Partially, this is the result of the premise. The building of a space elevator is just not as interesting as exploring a mysterious alien space craft, at least to me. There is more tension but I missed the sense of discovery.
I should mention that this book also contains first contact with alien intelligence as a minor plot point. Before the beginning of the novel, an unmanned alien vessel, Starglider, swings through the Solar System and makes contact with humans. Starglider is a powerful artificial intelligence that uses scientific logic to refute all religions which subsequently vanish almost immediately, with the exception of Buddhism. I found this part both odd and a ridiculous. Odd in that it had very little to do with the rest of the story and ridiculous because it is absurd to think that religion would just vanish because an alien computer said that religion does not hold up to scientific logic. Clarke is clearly trying to make a humanist point about a more utopian post-religion world (he could have said nothing and the rest of the story would be unchanged) but it falls flat. Many secular humanists think that people cling to religion because they don’t understand the world and if they just understood science then they would cease to believe. Yet, like much of the human experience, reality is bit more complicated than that. Personally, I do not believe that science and religion are like oil and water. Stephen Hawking wrote (I am paragraphing) that science does not disprove the existence (nor non-existence) of God but does show the rules He used to create the universe. Believing in the one does not negate the other. The Fountains of Paradise also end with aliens. In the far future, humans have stopped living on Earth and instead moved to orbiting space stations that encircle the planet. It was interesting ending but felt far removed the rest of the book.
The 1980s are off to a good start. I thoroughly enjoyed The Fountains of Paradise and I feel any sci-fi fan would as well. Clarke deserves his place as one of the greats of the genre. Hopefully 1981’s winner, The Snow Queen, will be just as good. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Review of the 1970s

     Grad school is over and I can get back to reading and writing about science fiction and fantasy. I realized that I wrote my first entry about a book from the 1970s 2 years ago. I promise, dear reader, that it will not take nearly that long to finish the 1980s. So what better way to get back into a summary of the 1970s Hugo Winners? The 1970s was a great decade for science fiction. In my view, it was a more reliable decade than the 1960s which had some amazing novels but a number of duds as well. The 1970s contained no terrible books but nothing that quite reached the level of Dune. As a new feature (and something I plan to continue with future installments), each book from the decade will be ranked. Please let me know if you disagree.

1.       1970       Ursula K. Le Guin              The Left Hand of Darkness          
2.       1974       Arthur C. Clarke                                Rendezvous with Rama
3.       1976       Joe Haldeman   The Forever War              
4.       1978       Frederik Pohl     Gateway            
5.       1975       Ursula K. Le Guin              The Dispossessed            
6.       1972       Philip José Farmer           To Your Scattered Bodies Go      
7.       1971       Larry Niven         Ringworld
8.       1977       Kate Wilhelm     Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
9.       1979       Vonda N. McIntyre         Dreamsnake
10.   1973       Isaac Asimov*   The Gods Themselves    

It was very difficult coming up with this last because there was not a single novel here that I disliked. The only choice that was truly easy was The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a masterpiece of science fiction. When I eventually finish reading all of these books it will be in my top overall books. Even literary critic Harold Bloom placed the book on his list of the Western Canon of Literature. I try to persuade non-science fiction fans to read it.
Rendezvous with Rama barely edged out The Forever War for number two slot. Both were wonderful but for very different reasons. Rendezvous is classic SF: exploration and adventure. The characters are interesting but the main focus is on the sense of wonder from exploring an alien craft. The Forever War, however, did not fill me with a sense of wonder but of uneasy. William Mandella’s struggle to live outside in the “normal world” after military deployment echoed many of the feelings I felt when I returned from Iraq. Home is never the same as when you left. It was a powerful work and I am glad that this project led me to read it.
       Slots four and five were difficult as well because I liked the both so much. Gateway’s unconventional protagonist and bifurcated structure often left me guessing. The ending in particular really stuck with me. The Dispossessed suffered from not being as good as The Left Hand of Darkness (a difficult task) but still contained Le Guin’s characteristic world building and nuanced characters and writing.
       The bottom five were all good. To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Ringworld had just enough missing to hold them back from higher rankings but I would recommend them to other science fiction readers. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing and Dreamsnake were thoroughly enjoyable yet not the work of greater fiction like some of the top science fiction stories I have had. They are not life changing.
       It almost felt wrong to place The God Themselves last. It was still good but lacked a certain something that the other books possessed. Most of the book lacked the tension and the wonder that other books in the decade possessed with the exception of the second part. I have since read other Asimov books and that part is among the strongest work he ever produced.
       Science fiction was clearly continuing to development into an excellent and complex genre of literature by the 1970s. Please let me know what you think. I plan to put out a review a day until I am actually caught up with my current reading. Until then, keep reading my friends. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1979: Dreamsnake


               The 1970s were a great decade for science fiction. There many great books ranging from hard SF stories about ringed planets and self-contained ecosystems in space craft to soft SF stories of cloning and individuality and genderless societies to stranger tales of resurrected people living on the banks of an endless river and three gendered aliens. It was the first decade a woman, Ursula Le Guinn, won the Hugo Award. In fact, four out of the ten 1970s winner were written by women including 1979’s Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. In a decade of great highs, Dreamsnake holds its own but does not reach the heights of such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Forever War, and Gateway.
                Dreamsnake takes place far in the future after a nuclear war has rendered vast swaths of the landscape radioactive. Yet it is not a desolate world with small groups struggling to survive. Society has reformed and the old world is mentioned only in passing. I love how McIntyre implies years of history to the world without giving too much detail. Like the Hechee in Gateway, the reader is only able to guess and infer what has happened. For example, title creature is from another planet but the reader is never told what planet, why they came to Earth or how brought them there. Further on that point, the main character goes to a city that still trades with aliens but she is unable to get in and we the readers never learn anything about the aliens and very little about the closed city that trades with them. It’s a nice mystery that enhances rather than detracts from the story.
                The story itself is about a healer named Snake who uses three snakes; a rattlesnake, a cobra, and the eponymous dreamsnake, and her trails to replace the dreamsnake after a misunderstanding with some tribespeople led to its death. Snake’s journey is not straight path since she does not know quite how to replace the rare dreamsnake and is loath to return to the healers and admit her failure. She travels through the land, helping people as she can with her two remaining snakes, picks up a companion, and ultimately succeeds in her goal. While that may seem like a spoiler but how Snake accomplishes it a bit surprising but felt completely organic and not contrived.
                It might sound strange how snakes are used for healing but McIntyre explanation is original. The snakes are specially bred to metabolize medicines within their systems. Snake feeds the rattlesnake or the cobra a compound that turns their venom into whatever medicine she needs and the repurposed venom attacks the illness with the same ferocity that it would have as a poison. She uses the snakes to transmit vaccines to nomads and kill a nasty infection in a wounded leg. The dreamsnake’s purpose is different, however. The dreamsnake takes away the pain and calms people. It can be used to calm a person who is undergoing surgery or suffering from an illness or ease the passing of a dying individual. Without, Snake feels she cannot do her job sufficiently. It is an interesting and well realized idea that helps to show this future world as both similar to our current world but alien as well. While much of the world is less advanced that our world, for example people use horses instead of motor vehicles and some live nomadic lives, in some ways it is more advanced. The snakes are shown to be more effective that modern medicine and people are able to control their own biological functions to such a degree that unwanted pregnancy is virtually unknown. It is a great world and I do wish that McIntyre had created more stories within it.
                There is really not much else to say. Dreamsnake is a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction tale that entertained me but did not leave the lasting impression that some of the greatest works did. I am find with this. When I started this strange project a few years back, I did not expect every work to be great but I did hope that every work would be good. What is important is that Dreamsnake was good and I am glad this little project brought it to my attention.
                My next blog will be summary of my impressions of the 1970s as I did with the 1950s and the 1960s. After that it is one of the three “Greats” of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke and his 1980 novel, The Foundations of Paradise. Happy reading until then!