Thursday, August 7, 2014

1975: The Dispossessed

For my few readers, I apoligize for the long delay. I spend the last year in Italy as part of my graduate studies and the summer traveling across Russia, Mongolia, and China. I plan to catch up in the next few weeks. Thank you. 

Reading The Dispossessed, 1975 Hugo Award winner, by Ursula Le Guinn a couple years ago is what gave me the idea of reading and blogging about all the Hugo Award winners. I have always found it difficult to pick a new book to read. My interests vary greatly. I have loved science fiction and fantasy since I was a boy but I also have a strong passion for classic literature (I decided to learn Russian in college because I loved the works of Dostoevsky) and modern fiction. My day job, and more often than not, my night job, is in international relations and politics so I read a great deal within that field as well. That was a rather long way of saying that my reading time is precious and it is hard to pick a book.
                Science fiction and fantasy are particularly difficult because there is so much out there and so much that is not very good. My wife will stop reading a book if she doesn’t like it but I find that too difficult. Once I start, I am committed. It’s usually a good thing though I have been burned in the past. Lisey’s Story by Stephen King is terrible and I really should not have read the whole thing. Seriously, much of King’s work is excellent but Lisey’s Story would not have been published if it wasn’t by Stephan King. Since I have such a hard time picking a book to reading all the Hugos seemed like a good idea. In the 4 years since I started, I have read over 20 Hugo winners and they have been more hits than misses. I have learned more of the rich history of science fiction (there has not been many fantasy works so far) and have enjoyed the experience immensely.
                So what of the book that inspired this quest? If the fact that The Dispossessed inspired me to read over 50 books did not give it away, I rather liked it. Ursula Le Guinn is one of the best writers to win the award. She has a true talent with words and worlds. Like her previous winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed creates a detailed and fascinating world, or more accurately two worlds, that feel full realized with their own history and philosophical underpinnings.
The Dispossessed takes place on twin worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is a lush and abundant world while Anarres is harsh and barren. Over a hundred and fifty years before the beginning of the novel, a group of anarchists left Urras and settled on Anarres. There they curved out a unique society based on anarchist principles which turned out to be not the utopia its founders may have originally envisioned but a functioning society nonetheless. I enjoyed that chapters set on Anarres more than the chapters set on Urras mostly because I enjoyed trying to understand how their society works. While I found it mostly believable, I still found it difficult to believe that there were not more abuses of the system. Le Guinn implies that the largest problem the anarchist society faces is intellectual stagnation.  Orthodoxy and strict adherence of the political wisdom of the movement’s founder has replaced innovated thinking. While this is certainly a problem, most of the people still follow its rules and do their part. The main character for example, Shevek, still works in the fields when he is required to and still works in the sanitation when it is his turn despite that fact that he is a brilliant physicist and it would seem a waste of his time to do anything else. Utopian systems break down because of the inherent jealous, selfishness, and contradictions in human nature. Anarres makes more sense for not changing since it heavily restricts interaction with Urras and its founding members all had the same beliefs unlike communist countries that had an elite that may have, at one time, believed in communist principles but a larger society may be, if not outright hostile to communist, at least generally indifferent to it.
The other aspect I had difficult is with the language used on Anarres. It is a created language like Esperanto or Klingon. It is very logical and also makes it impossible to express certain ideas in keeping with the ideas of the anarchist society.  The theory that language determines thought in this manner is called Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. This is a common idea in science fiction perhaps most famously from George Orwell’s 1984 in which the new language Newspeak makes it impossible to say the party is bad. In The Dispossessed, the only word to use to describe having sex is “to copulate” since that word has no connotations of dominance that would be out of step of the egalitarian ethos of the anarchist society. The problem with this idea is that is disregards the ingenuity of humans. A wonderful counter to Sapir-Whorf is found in Gene Wolf’s Citadel of the Autrach in which a person from a society where they are only allowed to speak in approved sayings tells a story that is critical of the ruling class. It is a brilliant chapter and demonstrates how people can find ways to say what they mean to say.
These quibbles are minor, however. The Dispossessed still tells a great story about a man named Shevek, the above mentioned brilliant scientist, travels from Anarres to Urras so he can interact with the great minds on the far more developed planet. The chapters are divided between the two planets with even numbers about Shevek’s time on Urras and odd number ones about his previous time on Anarres. Neither society is portrayed as perfect or idyllic. Le Guinn does an excellent job creating real characters living in a society considerably different than the readers would know. No character feels like a mouthpiece for the author’s views and nothing is heavy handed. Le Guinn mostly successfully creates a living breathing world were society is quite different from what we know with it feeling forced. I could only hope to create such a convincing world in my own writings.
The Dispossessed is a worthy addition to Le Guinn’s Hannish cycle. In fact, the novel is set many years before The Left Hand of Darkness. The ansible that Genly Ai uses in that novel is the creation of Shevek. I am glad I read the book and have enjoyed every other work of Le Guinn’s that I read since.

Next book is The Forever War, the classic anti-war novel by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman. As a veteran myself (Iraq, not Vietnam), I was looking forward to this. Until next time!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

1974: Rendezvous with Rama

               After 19 Hugo Award winning novels, I am finally reviewing the last of the “Big Three” of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke is most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey which strangely did not win the Hugo when it was published in 1968. It wasn’t even nominated.  Even though he casts a large shadow over science fiction, I had not read a single work (not even a short story) by Clarke until I came to 1974’s Rendezvous with Rama. I am sorry it took this long because Rendezvous with Rama is fantastic and, so far, tied with Hand of Darkness as my favorite Hugo Winner of the 70s.
                Rendezvous with Rama is a strange book to find so engrossing because there is no real conflict. There is a small conflict with colonists from Mercury but it doesn’t drive the plot for the most part and doesn’t feel that important. Instead of conflict, Rendezvous with Rama gives the reader the thrill of discovery. This is a book about the joys of exploration on a new and foreign land.
                This new and foreign land is not another planet but a large asteroid-like space craft that appears in our solar system in 2130. Named Rama by human authorities, the space craft is perfect cylinder measuring 34 miles long and 12 miles in diameter. A space ship is sent to intercept the craft before it rounds the sun and travels outside of the system. The team, led by Captain Bill Norton, lands on Rama and begins to explore.
             
              There really isn’t too much else I can say about the novel. To tell too much would ruin the sense of discovery Rendezvous with Rama imparts. Clarke slowly reveals more and more about the spaceship and leaves just as many questions as answers by the time the crew is forced to depart. The little pieces of the book’s universe are revealed through the crew members but exploration is the heart and soul of the novel.
                Clarke was a physicist so it is no surprise that Rendezvous with Rama is hard SF. Hard SF is a type of science fiction that strives for scientific rigor. It is like comparing 2001 to Star Wars. The crew is scientists (the stereotypical characters of hard SF) and they try to understand and explain how Rama works. Rather than take away from the sense of wonder that runs through the book, the scientific detail enhances it.  These details create a feeling of awe at the immensity of the craft and its complex workings.
                Sadly, Rendezvous with Rama ends just as a number of fascinating discoveries are being made. The book ends with a teaser that other Rama-like craft are on their way but it is just that, a teaser. There are sequels but they are written by a man named Gentry Lee and they are supposed to be terrible. From what a friend told me and what I read on Wikipedia, the sequels lose the sense of wonder and awe and replace it with bad plotting and excessive sex.
                If you enjoy a tale of wonder and discovery, Rendezvous with Rama will not leave you disappointed. I loved it and it makes me excited to read other works by Arthur C. Clarke. He has an impressive bibliography so I am sure there are other gems to discover.

                Next time I will take a look at another Ursula LeGuin work, The Dispossessed. Her last Hugo Winner was great so I have high hopes for this one. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

1973: The Gods Themselves

Isaac Asimov is one of the big three of science fiction along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark. The handful of lucky individuals that have been reading this blog will be no stranger to Heinlein. I have already read all four of his Hugo Award winning books. Clark will be next month and even though The Gods Themselves is my 20th Hugo winner, it is the first Asimov book to win and the first one I have ever read. Sadly, while I liked the book, I expected more from one of the greats of science fiction.
Whatever complaints I have with this book, the title was not one of them. I am a sucker for titles and this one immediately grabbed my interest. Who are these gods? I didn’t know and the back of the book didn’t give me much of any idea. Opening the book brought another surprise. The three sections of the novel formed a phrase of which The Gods Themselves was the middle part. The parts are called Against Stupidity…, …The Gods Themselves…, and …Contend in Vain? The whole quote is translation from Friedrich Schiller, an 18th Century German poet and playwright.
I know I am going on about the title but it did bring up my hopes to greater heights than was truly warranted. Now, don’t get me wrong, The Gods Themselves is a good book. Asimov’s writing style is utilitarian but it is still interesting. The problem is, with the exception of the second section, there is not enough drama which is strange since the stakes are so high. In the first section, we are introduced to a future where mankind has discovered a way to create cheap and seemingly limitless energy with a device called the Electron Pump. It doesn’t actually pump electrons but instead changes matter with matter from another dimension where the laws of physics aren’t quite the same.  Lamont, a young scientist, starts to research the Electron Pump and realizes that its creator, Dr. Hallam, may not have so much invented it as stumbled upon it. Lamont discovers two other startlingly facts: there are beings on the other side of the pump that started the process and that it is slowly changing the rules of physics in our solar system and will eventually cause the sun to nova. He tries to spread the word but it shut down by the scientific and political community because the Electron Pump is the basis for human civilization and no one can think of giving it up. I don’t know if it was Asimov’s plan but there is a strong parallel to contemporary oil and energy issues.
It is a good set up but Asimov gives the story such a weak ending in the third section that it doesn’t seem worth it. There is some dramatic tension but the solution is so easy and so painless that there is no impact. I was left wanting more.
So two of the three sections were a letdown but what about that second section: The Gods Themselves? I haven’t read much Asimov but from what I have read about him he almost never wrote about aliens. Robots were more his thing. It is a shame that he didn’t write more about aliens because if the second section is any indication, he was good at it. …The Gods Themselves… is about the aliens that created the Electron Pump. Their sun is dying and they need the energy. Not in the same way humans do though. The aliens absorb energy directly.  In one of the most interesting twists, they are divided into three sexes, Rationals, Emotionals, and Parentals. Asimov uses masculine pronouns for the Rationals and Parentals and feminine for the Emotionals but thinking of them as male and female is a mistake. They reproduce by melding with each other into a larger whole. The section doesn’t give a complete overview of their society but enough to understand each of the three sexes and the general structure. It is a wonderful story with a real sense of wonder and much more tension then the other two. Read it yourself; I won’t give the ending here. Asimov should have focused more on this and less on the real world story.

My first experience with one of the greats was a mild disappointment but I am not sorry I read it (unlike some other Hugo Winners). Asimov could have done so much more with this book. Hopefully the next winner from one of the greats, Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, will be better. See you there next time. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

1972: To Your Scattered Bodies Go



               To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer is the weirdest Hugo Winner yet. Certainly stranger than Dune, Lord of Light, and even The Big Time and that book was about people at a rest point outside of the space time continuum. Despite its strangest, or perhaps because of it, it was a good book and earned its Hugo.
                The novel is the first of five books that takes place on Riverworld, which, despite the closeness of its name, has no relation to ring world. Riverworld is a massive planet Earth like planet that has been terraformed to contain one river valley that starts at the North Pole and runs its way around the planet until it arrives back at the North Pole. This valley is millions of miles long. The mounts that border the valley are higher than Mount Everest and impossible to climb. This setting is strange but not any stranger than other sci-fi books. What makes To Your Scattered Bodies Go truly strange is what Farmer does with this location: he populates it with every human that has ever lived who have all woken up at the same time on the River World. Despite the huge population of every human that ever lived, the number of people stays stable because people cannot reproduce and death is not the end. People are simply resurrected somewhere else on the river whenever they die. Yeah, it is a bit strange.
                With every human that ever lived populating his world, Farmer employs quite a few famous ones for this story. The main character is Sir Richard Burton, a 19th century English adventurer who lived a rather colorful life. Burton’s life was so crazy it is hard to believe he was a real person. He served in India and the Crimean War and impersonated a Pashtun from Afghanistan to travel to Mecca. His publishing company was the first to translate the Karma Sutra into English. He wrote about falconry, fencing, sexual practices, and human behavior. Richard Burton was sort of 19th century most interesting man in the world. He also had a pretty impressive beard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ST-Burton.jpg). In short, he makes for a great main character.
                During the book Burton travels with different companions up the river to try to discover its source and figure out why Riverworld exists and who put everyone here. He meets many interesting people from a science fiction writer that is clearly a stand in for Farmer (his name is Peter Jairus Frigate), Alice Liddel (the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland is based on), an alien, a Neanderthal, and the infamous Herman Goring. I thought it was a nice touch to use Goring instead of the more obvious Hitler. The interaction between the historic characters is believable especially considering that Richard Burton died before Goring was born and had no knowledge of his crimes.
                Farmer’s writing is engaging and, as I mentioned before, Richard Burton is a great main character. Everything moves along briskly and it is interesting what happen to people as they are forced to live near each other and how they react. It involves a lot of bloodshed and intermixing of languages and peoples in ways that ever would have been possible.
                The only reason I would not recommend this novel is that it is the first in a series and if you don’t want to read four books to learn the whole story then you should probably pass. The ending is fairly unsatisfying since it is only part one. I haven’t read the other ones yet so I don’t know if To Your Scattered Bodies Go is just the beginning of a great story or the only good part of an increasingly strange series.
                It is a good though and anyone who is interested in a series with a truly strange premise and a good adventure should look no further then To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

Friday, May 3, 2013

1971: Ringworld



                Ringworld by Larry Niven is the first Hugo Winner in a long time that really puts the science in science fiction. By that I don’t mean that Ringworld is completely scientifically accurate, there is faster-then-light travel and all manner of currently impossible technology, but rather the book has a much stronger veneer of science and makes a consecrated effort to explain its fantastic elements in actual scientific principles. That and it’s a pretty good adventure as well.
                I have mentioned before on this blog that scientific rigor is not terrible important to me. It is more important that a work follows its own rules rather than be completely accurate. That has made me wary of more “hard” science fiction. I worry, perhaps unjustly, that the rigor and the science will get in the way of a good story and that the writing will be dry and boring. I am not sure why I hold this prejudice except that I imagine that people who are into the hard science are not as interested in stories.
                If Ringworld is one of the better examples of “hard” science fiction than I have little to worry about. Niven has crafted an interesting story about a man named Louis Wu that has been hired by an alien named Nessus to travel to an unknown star system. Louis just turned 200 years old and is getting bored with life so he accepts the job. He and Nessus are joined by different type of alien named Speaker to Animals (usually just referred to as Speaker) and a young human girl named Teela Brown who Louis had met at his 200th birthday party. Nessus has hired them to explore a strange object called the ring world. To picture the ring world just think of the Halo from the Halo games series. The Halos are exactly like the ring world. The only difference I noticed was the scale. While Halo, to my recollection, never stated how big the Halos were, Niven is fairly exact about the enormity of ring world. The width of ring world is about 1 million miles from edge to edge and the ring is approximately the same diameter of earth’s orbit.  Put these two figures together and the ring world has the equivalent surface area of 3 million earths.
                I am a sucker for ancient civilizations and mysterious objects so all this about Ringworld appealed to me. The idea of a strange object that has the surface area of 3 million Earths is a pretth great hook for me. Niven’s detail sells the size of the structure and dimensions of the world. It was fun exploring the planet with Louis Wu and his crew. It becomes more interesting as they discover people and ruins of a pervious advanced civilization. Niven has an easy to read style that helps the story move at a brisk pace.
                Ringworld is not the first Hugo Winner to feature aliens but it is one of the first to have aliens as main characters. Nessus and Speaker and interesting characters but they fall short of the depth and complexity of the Estraven from The Left Hand of Darkness. Part of this stems from Niven’s aliens suffering from what I have heard called “Star Trek syndrome”. “Star Trek syndrome” basically means that aliens are built around one defined characteristic such as Vulcans being logical and Klingons being warlike. In the case of Ringworld we have Nessus, who as a Pierson’s Puppeteer, is a coward and their entire advanced civilization seems to be built around cowardice and Speaker, who as a Kzin, is aggressive and violent. Perhaps it is unfair to the characters. They are fairly well developed but the societies they come from are so one dimensional that it is difficult from them to be as deep as they could be. I still liked them though. Pierson’s Puppeteers are one of the stranger aliens I have read about. They are a four legged creature with what appears to be two heads coming out of its back. While these heads have one each and lips, they are not heads as we would think of them. Instead they are more like hands with eyes with the Pierson’s  Puppeteers’ brain located inside its body. It is a strange configuration but it works. The Kzin are far more conventional. They are essentially 8 foot fall cat people. The Kzin fought a series of wars with humans in the past and lost most of their empire. There is a whole series of books about the Man-Kzin wars but I haven’t read them. It should be noted that Speaker is the second cat-esque alien to appear in a Hugo Winner and he is much better than the creepy overly sexualized Tigerishka from The Wanderer. Even his name is much better.
                There really was only one thing that rubbed me the wrong way about this book and that was its sexual content. It is not overly graphic but it feels bit juvenile like what a stereotypical teenage boy would like sex to be. Teela Brown seems to be in the story only for sex and her innate luck. Again it’s not over the top but it can seem a tad strained.
                All and all this leaves Ringworld as a pretty good adventure story. It is certainly not my favorite Hugo Winner but I liked it quite a bit. I didn’t need all of the scientific details that Niven but it didn’t detract from the story. If you are looking for a good science fiction novel, look no further than Ringworld.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

1970: The Left Hand of Darkness



                Over the years I realized that I do not read science fiction for the science. While the nuts and bolts of the actual science can be interesting, it is not compelling to me. No, what I look for are places and worlds to explore, cultures to understand, interesting plots, and dynamic characters. That is why I loved Dune and Lord of Light and disliked the Wanderer. All those things are in Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, the 1970 Hugo Winner, and I loved nearly every word of it.
                It is worth noting before we get started that Ursula LeGuin is the first woman to win the Hugo Award and only the second one nominated in the 17 years the Hugos that had existed at that point. There won’t be a dissection of that fact; I just felt it was worth noting. This blog is to discuss the quality of books and authors are judged solely on their works; nothing else.
                LeGuin has nothing to fear on that account, though, because as I wrote earlier, I loved this novel. It had all the elements that I love in a good novel. Before we get into each of those elements, I should explain the backstory for the work. The Left Hand of Darkness is part of LeGuin’s Hanish Cycle, a series of loosely connected books about The Ekumen, an organization of planets and civilizations. Since space travel is so difficult interplanetary warfare is impossible so the main purpose of the organization is facilitate communication and trade. The Ekumen has an unusual yet sensible way of bringing other planets into the fold: it sends one person, called the Envoy, to a planet to convince them to join. Why just one person? Because two people are an invasion. The Ekumen reason that one person is less of a threat and shows the nonviolent nature of the organization.
                The protanganist, Genly Ai, of The Left Hand of Darkness is one such Envoy and he has been sent to the icy world of Gethen. Gethen is interesting for two reasons: it is in icy age and the people have not set gender. The Gethens have no gender except during kemmer where they turn male or female depending on whom they are with. So a person can be both a father and a mother. LeGuin does an excellent job describing a society where the normal male/female relations do not exist. One of the the interesting ramifications of this is most Gethens believe Genly is a pervert because he is stuck as male. Gethens do not fight wars (I found this a bit hard to believe but more on that later) but they are hardly a peaceful or nonviolent people. Instead of war, Gethens are engaged in constant and complex political infighting that can end with assassinations and murder as often as not. For Genly Ai this complicated political situation is made even more difficult by a Gethen practice called shifgrethor. Shifgrethor is a nuanced face saving mechanism that all Gethens use and understand and Genly is mostly clueless. As someone who has lived in worked in the Middle East I am familiar with something like this and it can be frustrating.
                While Genly Ai is a great character and it is fasnating to read about his struggles, the novel is also told through perspective of Estraven, a Karhide noble that arranges Genly’s first audience with the king. To go into more detail would spoil the book but Estraven is a great character and it is interesting to see events from his perspective.
 The societies of the two nations Genly Ai visits feel fleshed out and unique. Karhide is a late feudal era monarchy and Orgoreyn is an industrializing nation with a communist social structure. LeGuin lavishly describes the countryside and the architecture of both places making them feel quite real. I really loved the depth she gives to each society. Too often in science fiction alien societies are too one-dimensional to be really interested.  Star Trek is particularly guilt of this.
The book could be better though. My first critique is more of a backhanded compliment. I wish the novel was longer. It is barely over 300 pages but easily could be another 100 or 200 pages. Gethen is such a rich world that it seems a shame that we can’t read more about it. As far as I know, LeGuin has never returned to Gethen. The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t need a sequel, I just wish it was a bit longer.
I mentioned earlier how the Gethens don’t go to war. LeGuin has stated that, since they have no set gender, Gethens don’t have a concept of the Other.  There is no “us and them” in their minds. While I find that assertion somewhat dubious (it is her book so she can say what she wants) the Gethens do have a degree of nationalism and do seem to have lower regard for other nations. This is clearly an “us and them” way of thinking. People don’t need much a reason to separate themselves from others. The fact that Orgoreyn and Karhide speak different languages would be enough. I get what LeGuin was trying for but it didn’t really work.
Don’t let my small complaints get in the way of enjoying The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a quality read and puts the 1970s Hugo Winners off to a good start.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A review of the 1960s



                I am just going to come right out and say it: the 1960s had better Hugo Winner than the 1950s. Much better. Only Albert Bester’s The Demolished Man holds up to the best books of the 60s. In sci-fi terms, the 1960s was light years ahead of the 1950s.
                The 1950s is supposed to be “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” where the science fiction moved from the pulp of the 1920s to the 1940s to the more literary work that would start in the 1960s. It was an awkward transition and it’s not for the pulpy elements. I love pulp science fiction and fantasy. I have read and adored all eleven Martian books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and am a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard. If you want to experience the best of pulp go read those authors and forget most of the Hugo Winners of the 1950s, except for The Demolished Man.
                But enough of that; this is about the 60s, not the 50s. And if the 60s Hugo Winners are any indication of what I will be reading in the 70s and beyond I am excited. While I did not like every book, there were many that wonderful ones with some I expected to be good others and others came out of nowhere.
                Most of the books I expected to be good were very good such as Dune, Starship Troopers, The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, The Man in the High Castle, and A Canticle for Leibowitz. But I knew about these books and the expectation that I would enjoy them did not give me the same joy as when I found something truly unexpected that I loved. For this decade it was two Roger Zelazny novels, This Immortal and Lord of Light, and Clifford Simak’s Way Station. Unlike the other novels mentioned above, I knew virtually nothing about either author, had never read their work, or even known someone who had read their work. Finding novels that take me by surprise like that is one of the man reasons I started this project. So if I have to suffer through some duds like the Wanderer or Strange in a Strange Land it is worth to find fresh and original works.
                Stranger in a Strange Land was my biggest disappointment this decade. I liked the other three Heinlein books I have read but this one did not click with me. What is so disappointing is that my sister-in-law and one of my other brother’s girlfriend told me how much they loved the book and were excited that I was going to read it. Sorry, ladies, it just didn’t do it for me. I did not grok it.
                The 1960s where a good decade for science fiction and I am pumped to find what the 1970s has in store. Stay tuned for The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, the first woman to win the Hugo.