Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1981: The Snow Queen


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                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


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               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!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

1978: Gateway

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                After the absence of only a year, the Hugos go back into space with 1978’s Gateway.  The novel, by Frederick Pohl, takes place in a future where mankind discovers an abandoned base of a highly technologically advanced alien within an asteroid. The base comes with thousands of alien ships; many of which are still in working order. There is a catch: humans have no idea how to set the coordinates of ships so people volunteer to take the ships to their pre-set destinations. Some destinations contain riches, some contain nothing, and some ships never return. Every run is a gamble. It is a great premise that thankfully turned into a great book.
Concept can get a writer far in science fiction but it is not enough by itself. I was very excited for A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1959 Hugo Winner) because I found the concept of humanity meeting an alien species with no concept of God or Good and Evil would provide an interesting and philosophical tale. It was a great idea that fell apart in its execution. The aliens were boring and the novel extremely uneven. Gateway delivers on its premise far better. The novel has a bifurcated narrative. Odd numbered chapters are therapy sessions between the protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, and his robotic therapist, Sigfrid von Shrink (a name I both love and find ridiculous) and even number chapters detail Robinette’s (who usually goes by Rob) time on the alien base and his expeditions on the ships. The odd number chapters take place chronologically after the even number chapters and it comes clear quickly that Rob had been very successful in one his trips and is now independently wealthy. Why then would a man who has everything he could need or want to see a shrink? It is not hard to tell that Rob is hiding something from Sigfrid and possibly himself.
The structure gives the reader just enough of a hint to leave them constantly wanting more. Pohl takes his time building his characters, Rob especially. Rob is a great character because he is relatable, likable, but also petty, cowardly, and at times irritating. Besides one act late in the book which did not seem to fit his character at all, all of his actions seem organic and understandable within his character. He actions do not change just to make the plot work. I appreciated that Pohl did not give any major revelations about the aliens, called the Hechee, in Gateway. Their technology and society remains a mystery both to the humans in the book and to the reader. I read online that there are more books in the series that explain much more of this enigmatic race but I loved the mystery. I enjoyed speculating about their motives and their culture. It was well done. That being said, Pohl does not skimp on details and spends considerable time explaining how the base works, how humans have repurposed the ships, and how the payout system works for people who make discoveries. It’s a minor detail but Pohl even talks about how bathrooms are installed in the ships. Science fiction rarely deals with those kinds of mundane issues. Pohl’s universe has a very lived in feel which I enjoy. So much science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s (the Golden Age) feels a little sterile. Humanity is a bit grubby and I do not think we will stop being so in the future so I love sci-fi that acknowledges it. To use some more modern examples, I prefer the lived in worlds of the Alien movies and the original Star Wars trilogy to the shinning sterility of Star Wars prequel trilogy and Star Trek.
As much as I enjoyed it, there are some things in the book I just not like or found to be a bit of stretch. First of all is Rob’s occupation before he went into space. Rob was a food shale miner on Earth. In this future, Earth is overpopulated and impoverished and it is necessary to mine oil and shale to turn into food. While the overcrowded and starving Earth is not a new idea in science fiction (Heinlein wrote scores of books about space farmers), I found the idea of mining oil for food a bit ridiculous. It is a small bone to pick but I pick it none the less. Similarly, the gap between rich and poor in this world seems enormous to an almost comical degree. This aspect struck me when I first read the novel but now it seems more and more logical. There is also a minor event late in the novel that does not mesh well with Rob’s established character and I found off putting. It would make little sense to explain it out of context. If anyone else reads, please leave a comment with your thoughts. It would be hard to miss.
Gateway is a great combination of old and new science fiction. The old emphasis on exploration and discovery paired with more human stories with flawed and relatable characters. It makes me want to read more Pohl. I would recommend this winner to just about anyone and I would say it was one of my favorites of the decade along with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Forever War.

The next book, Dreamsnake, is by the third woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel, Vonda N. McIntyre. Will the 1970s end as well as it began? Find out soon.