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.