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 ( 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.