Friday, 7 September 2012

"Tool of the Trade" by Joe Haldeman

Tool of the TradeTool of the Trade by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Tool of the Trade" belongs to a sub-genre of SF that could be called "Simon Says".

What if someone had the power to make other people do what they wanted, if free will came with an asterisk? This is entertaining source material that's mined over and over again in comic books (here are two examples: 1 2).

For the story to work, there have to be limitations on the power, a class of people who are immune, or some other reason why life isn't infinitely easy for someone who can just order people to do what they want. This story is no different. It plays with the material, but only goes so far in exploring the limits.

Haldeman's take on this sub-genre interesting is notable for its Cold War setting, its spy-novel flair, and its ending (which I won't spoil). It's also yet another example of Haldeman's enduring skill as a writer, which lies in taking a slice or two of SF and applying it on a human scale, with both drama and humor mixed in. Even when his subject is the nature of the universe itself (as in "Forever Free"), he still fills his characters with desires, with intelligence, with a sense of humor.

Friday, 1 October 2010

"Dying Inside" by Robert Silverberg

Yet again I'm surprised and pleased by the SF Masterworks series, most recently for introducing me to Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside".

"Dying Inside" sits somewhere between Kafka's "Metamorphosis" (in which a man awakes to find himself transformed into a bug) and "The Fermata" by Nicholson Baker (in which a man has the ability to stop time at will).   David Selig, the main character of "Dying Inside" is a mind-reader.   Unlike the main character of "The Fermata", he cannot bring himself to take advantage of his gift to gain an advantage (by reading stock tips, for example).  Instead, in spite of his gift, David Selig struggles through life, vainly searching for some real connection and identification with the rest of humanity.

We meet him as his powers are waning, as the ability that defines him slips away and leaves him floundering.  Even at the height of his power he has not found a connection to the people whose minds he can read, or to another telepath he encounters, or to the rare girl he finds whose mind he cannot read.  As his powers fade, he becomes more hopeless until at last something has to give.

There's something to the phrase "mind reading".  The beauty of this book is that as reader's to David Selig's narrator, we are privileged to explore his mind, to have his secrets opened to us and try to understand him.  The novel makes us perfect receivers, just as Selig is, but we are powerless to transmit back, just as he is.  Without his power, he struggles just as we all must to make a connection with others, and his drama is our drama.   This is a great book, and highly recommended.

Silverberg's "Downward to the Earth" and "Book of Skulls" are also on the SF Masterworks list, I look forward to reading those very soon.

Friday, 24 September 2010

"Pavane" by Keith Roberts

Yet again, the "SF Masterworks" series has delivered another amazing and unexpected book to my reading list.  This week's entry is "Pavane" by Keith Roberts, an alternate history of England (in the same sense that
"Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore was an alternate history of the US). 

 Although England has quite a few turning points to choose from in its history, Roberts starts with the death of Queen Elizabeth by an assassin's bullet, and the conquest of a divided England by the Spanish Armada.  From this single point of divergence and its immediate consequences, Roberts brings us forward to the year 1968.  In this history, the Protestant Reformation never occurred, and the Church is a second Roman Empire. England and America are both provinces of the Church.  

Although electricity, combustion engines, and other relatively modern inventions are known, their use is regulated by the Church as a means of preserving order and limiting opposition.  Instead of radio or telegraph, giant towers use mechanical arms to signal in semaphore over vast distances, where scouts watching through binoculars record and relay messages that must travel beyond the line of sight.  Metal and fuel are carefully regulated as well, so that freight is hauled by short trains of steam-powered cars that run on dirt paths rather than rails.  This is steampunk without the romanticism, a second dark age where the Inquisition still has free reign.  Into this difficult time come amazing characters, who fight against and sometimes transcend the limitations of their time. 

"Pavane" was assembled from a series of six short stories set in the same universe.  Two of the stories are standalone vignettes describing some aspect of this altered world.  Four of the stories make a longer arc that takes us through three generations and (finally) beyond the long reign of the Church.  Each story is compelling and breathes life into Roberts' England . The end of the arc is elegant, fitting, and true.

A final section ("Coda") accompanies the books, and here Roberts implies that the Church is aware of our world and has limited man's progress to avoid the horrors of World War II and the atomic age.  I was recently thinking a lot about the role of a "modern man" in most time-travel novels.  It simplifies the narrative, and makes it easier to comprehend.  When working in the short form (television, movies), I can understand the necessity of simplifying a narrative in this way.  In novels, it gives the author a means of steering the reader's understanding, of inserting an interpretation of the larger meaning of the novel.  For whatever reason Roberts chose to use the device, it bothered me.

There is a similar moment in "Man in the High Castle" by Philip K .Dick, an alternate history in which the Allies lost World War II.  In "Man in the High Castle", there is an author whose infamous and contraband book "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" describes our own world.

In a key conversation, the author reveals that the novel was written entirely relying on the I-Ching to construct the narrative, and admits that he believes the world he describes (our world) to be the real one.  These are characters attempting to peer beyond the edge of the page, looking at the audience, and it succeeds because they don't hold or force the moment.  I'm almost glad Dick never finished the proposed sequel in which characters from the alternate present attempt to break into our world.  It's better to leave a bit of mystery and room to imagine.

I disagree with Roberts' assessment of his England as an improvement, but more importantly, I think it undermines the strength of the book as a whole to spell things out in such detail, even if we're only ultimately talking about two paragraphs in a larger work.  Maybe it's just me, I didn't want to know that "The Force" is actually produced by "Midichlorians", either.

"Coda" aside, this is a great book, and the larger arc is a fine one.  I would highly recommend that anyone read this book and make up their own mind about the rest.

Friday, 17 September 2010

"Pygmy" by Chuck Pahlaniuk

If you were to try to recreate American culture based on the works of Chuck Pahlaniuk, you would get quite an odd picture.

His characters are individuals, defined by their history, but straining against their limits. The subservient missionary in "Survivor" has been trained all his life to serve, to please people, to do a good job. He's so eager to please people that he mimics a different disorder out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders each week to give his case worker something to diagnose. He's so wholesome that he erases his own wholesomeness to please others. The main character of "Diary" is a prisoner of her own history, which has been recorded before she experiences it.

His characters are invariably on their way to find infamy in the crazed world they inhabit, even though that's rarely their goal. In "Rant", characters try to gain literal immortality by creating such a big disaster that they are pushed outside of time. In "Choke", a sex addict attends meetings to hook up with other addicts and get their best ideas. In "Invisible Monsters", a woman unties the knot that holds her life together (her beauty) and embraces the chaos that follows as she travels around the country with people whose lives are similarly unraveling.

His characters spend their lives tiptoeing around their (and other people's) secrets, only to crash through them all at once. The famed ending of "Fight Club" is only one example. The main character in "Lullaby" is running from the tragic death of his family (for which he was unwittingly to blame). The main characters in "Haunted" are each prisoners of their secrets, which are exposed to the reader one by one, leaving us witnesses to their hidden shame and denial.

His latest book, "Pygmy", is all of these things and more. "Pygmy" follows the eponymous agent of an unspecified dictatorship (or communist regime) that has trained its best and brightest to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy America. Each of these are planted in a host family through an exchange student program. You don't have to be a spy to detect your (host) family's secrets, but it helps.

Pygmy's inner monologue reveals nothing but contempt (and humor) as each fresh part of America's underbelly is exposed to him.  He is a trained killer pulling his punches during the mock battles of spelling bees and dodge ball.  He sees all of us as worthy of punishment, and seeks to live a life infamous enough to merit the punishment "the deity" has already meted out for him.  He gains infamy, but not necessarily in the way he seeks, and not without encountering the usual assortment of oddly human characters (and caricatures) found in most Pahlaniuk novels.

Pygmy is a good example of Pahlaniuk's work and if you can get into the flow of the affected broken English Pygmy uses (which took me a while), it's an enjoyable and darkly humorous book.

Friday, 10 September 2010

"Timescape" by Gregory Benford

I'm nearing the home stretch with the SF Masterworks series, and it's still full of surprising and great books. The latest example is "Timescape" by Gregory Benford.

Time travel is a well-explored concept to say the least in Science Fiction. From "The Time Machine" to "The Terminator" to "Futurama", SF fans have read and watched as wave after wave of time travelers travel through time, creating ripples of paradox in their wake. In most works, the time traveler is exempted from paradoxes, and can witness the effects of the changes they make in the full knowledge of how the new world compares to the world they left behind. To name just a few examples:

  • In Ray Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder", a time traveler steps on a butterfly in prehistory and returns to an altered (and diminished) present.
  • In the "Back to the Future" series, numerous characters change the present by altering the past.  The main character fades into a ghostly half-existence when he threatens to undo his parents' marriage.
  • In the "Yesterday's Enterprise" episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", a ship is sent forward in time and (as a result of its absence at a key point in history) encounters an altered future.
  • In Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch", travelers from the future make changes in the time of Columbus to ensure that European and American cultures meet as equals.
Traveling physically through time gives us a narrator who experiences another time with the same sense of wonder and otherness that we (the reader or viewer) do.  It gives the author a natural means of describing the world in terms of specific differences from our own world.  For the same reason, having the time traveler remain unaffected by the changes gives us someone to identify with and learn from as we try to make sense of the altered world.  If the world is worse (as it often is), there's one character who can work to undo the changes and set things right.

Another good example is the relativistic time traveler, a person from our time who travels close to the speed of light and reaches their destination hundreds or thousands of years in the future.  In works like "Planet of the Apes", these characters help bring drama to the story.  "Planet of the Apes" would have been a very different work if there were no astronauts from our time involved in the story. We might simply see a cross-section of ape society from the point of view of a chimpanzee archeologist who discovered the ruins of the Statue of Liberty.  In the right hands, it could still be dramatic, but it would be a slower-paced and more challenging kind of drama than following Charlton Heston as he bellows, outraged, through the world of the apes.

These two pillars of time travel works are incredibly common and (on the whole) enjoyable, but after so many variations on a similar theme, it's refreshing to encounter a book like "Timescape" that has something new to offer.  The first key difference in "Timescape" is that no one ever actually travels in time.  Only information (in the form of tachyon beams) is sent into the past.  The right information can change the future, and that's all that's needed to explore the idea of paradox in more detail.

This brings us to the second key difference in "Timescape", which is the way in which paradoxes are handled.  Benford's treatment is elegant and surprising, and evolves naturally as the characters involved (many of whom are research scientists) become aware of the possibilities.  I'll avoid going into further detail to avoid spoiling anything for anyone who hasn't read the book.

Beyond those two variations, "Timescape" is a solid novel with good characters and story.  We follow two sets of main characters, one in a near future in which environmental ruin looms, one in a near past in which a young junior professor struggles to avoid becoming marginalized as he discovers a message from the future hidden in the background noise in one of his experiments.  Both time periods are well-rendered and the characters are memorable, even if in some cases they aren't particularly likeable.

This is a great novel with solid ideas and strong characters, and well worth a read.

Friday, 3 September 2010

"VOR" by James Blish

I read my first James Blish novels working my way through the Sci-Fi Masterworks series, and it's been a pleasure to wander off the path and track down his other works. I found a few piles of Blish novels on my recent trip to San Francisco, and the last of these is "VOR", a short novel about a spaceship that crash lands on earth and its lone inhabitant, the first alien encountered by human beings.

On balance, this feels like a lesser work for Blish. There's nothing to surprise or stretch the imagination, none of the inventiveness, the philosophy, the scope of his more famous works. Except for the alien, the central character's main arc seems close to "Zero Hour" (the film on which "Airplane" was based, which was released the year before "VOR"), but without the tension or (laughable) melodrama. The ending seems like the sort of pat single twist you'd expect from a classic Trek episode. When it was released, I'd like to think it was better written than most pulp, and held its own with the films and novels of its day. It's not timeless, though, and unless you're a big Blish fan, you'll probably be a bit underwhelmed.

If you want something a bit more accessible, try "Spock Must Die" if you're a Trekker, "Dr. Mirabilis" if you're a history buff, and "Cities in Flight" if you haven't tried Blish before).

Friday, 27 August 2010

"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds

During my recent journey around the world, I caught up on a lot of reading. I don't usually think of myself as a fan of space opera. I think of it as something I'm not often in the mood to enjoy. Looking back, it seems like I've been in the mood often enough, as I made my way through the works of Ken Macleod ("The Star Fraction", The "Engines of Light" trilogy and others not reviewed here) and Iain M. Banks ("Player of Games", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background", "Excession", "Consider Phlebas", "Look to Windward", "Inversions, "Feersum Endjinn", "The Algebraist" and "Matter").

I had skimmed portions of Alastair Reynolds' work in bookstores in the past, but was never hooked until I finally took the chance and bought "House of Suns". I wasn't disappointed.

"House of Suns" tells the story of "the lines", families of a thousand clones of the same individual, who began life with a shared set of memories, and who set out to explore the galaxy. They reunite every hundred thousand years or so to exchange their memories over the course of a thousand nights. The telling takes three years and (owing to relativistic effects and the distances they must cover), it takes ten to twenty years for everyone to assemble. That the equivalent of a family reunion takes ten or more years is a sign of how long members of the line live and the time scale they operate in. These are explorers who plot wide arcs in both space and time.

Into this already interesting base Reynolds throws familiar but well-handled material such as forgotten civilizations, machine intelligences, conspiracy, treason, and murder. To dwell on any of it in great detail would be a disservice. Suffice to say it's an enjoyable mix of hard Sci-fi and drama and a fairly short read (as space operas go). I found it a good introduction to Reynolds' work and worth checking out.