Saturday, 30 May 2009

"The Synthetic Man" by Theodore Sturgeon

In preparation for an upcoming move (across town), I've been working through a pile of books so that I can sell them back to the Book Exchange and lighten the load a bit. One of the recent quickies I whipped through is "The Synthetic Man" by Theodore Sturgeon. I had previously read and enjoyed "More Than Human", which was featured in the Gollancz "Sci-fi Masterworks" collection that revived my interest in reading the classics of the genre.

This book reminds me of "Blood Music" by Greg Bear. The protagonist of both books has a power he is at first unaware of, but which grows as his confidence and awareness grow. In this case, we follow "Horty", a boy who becomes an extraordinary man. He is both more and less than human. As mentioned on the back cover, as a boy he loses three fingers, which reminded me of "Demon with a Glass Hand" just a little bit, even though the two stories are very different.

A better comparison is with Borges' "The Circular Ruins", where a man is imagined into being by another man until the imagined man assumes a life of his own. This book seems like a simpler treatment of the same idea.

Still, it's entertaining enough. If you want a quick read that lies somewhere between the heady fare of Borges and the guilty pleasure of pure space opera, there are worse ways to spend your time.

"The Dark Side of the Earth" by Alfred Bester

Now that I have a steady source for paperback editions of classic science fiction in town (the Book Exchange here in Amsterdam), I have been picking up a sampling of books from authors I've enjoyed previously. In the latest batch, I picked up "The Dark Side of the Earth" by Alfred Bester, whose "The Stars My Destination" is one of the all-time classics, and whose other great work "The Demolished Man" isn't far behind.

"The Dark Side of the Earth" is a collection of short stories. As with many collections of this type, there are a few gems and a few misfires. The highlights of this collection are "Time is the Traitor" and "They Don't Make Life Like They Used to". "Time is the Traitor" is a meditation on memory and loss, and succeeds fairly well.

"They Don't Make Life Like They Used to" is a post-apocalyptic story in the same vein as "Night of the Comet" or "The Quiet Earth". In both those films, a handful of survivors attempt to live out their lonely lives in the ruins of our society, and have what fun they can doing it. The story is mostly about the characters, we never really even know how the world ended. It's speculative fiction more than science fiction, characters driven by fantastic circumstances, but still recognizably and endearingly human.

A few of the other stories just seem a bit dated, or maybe they just didn't suit my mood at the time I read them. Regardless, there are enough gems to make this worth picking up.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

"Inside Outside" by Philip José Farmer

Hot on the heels of finishing the "Riverworld" series by Philip José Farmer, I decided to go through one of his shorter works, "Inside Outside". I got a strange sense of déja vu reading this. Farmer paints a world in which people are resurrected after death, and in which they can't die. They are watched by advanced beings, whose goal is to help them reach enlightenment. This should sound really familiar to anyone who has read the Riverworld series.

"Inside Outside" was published a few years before "To Your Scattered Bodies Go", and to me seems like a beta version or a sketch for the later work. This isn't to say that it's a bad book. It's just good in a less epic way.

I would recommend this if you like Philip José Farmer and the Riverworld series, or if you just want a good old-fashioned simple sci-fi novel with a couple of mildly amusing twists.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

"The Magic Labyrinth" by Philip José Farmer

I was hooked by "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" a few weeks ago, and have been blazing through the rest of the series. I just finished "The Magic Labyrinth", the fourth book, which completes the major arc that brings the "lazari" of the Riverworld face to face with the people responsible for bringing them back to life on this new world.

The first installment was largely the story of Richard Burton, and introduced the questions whose answers might lie at the source of the river. The second book was largely the story of Samuel Clemens and his dream of building a boat that (among other things) is the best hope of travelling upstream to the source of the river. As the river windws around the entire planet, most of the third book was spent in transit.

The fourth book brings us in sight of the goal and unlocks its secrets (or at least some of them). It's a major payoff after a series of small revelations and a long journey with these (now familiar) character. Well worth the time.

I'm working on the fifth book "Gods of Riverworld" at the moment and will review that in a few.

Monday, 25 May 2009

"The Dark Design" by Philip José Farmer

"The Dark Design" is the third of four books in the main current of the "Riverworld" series. We pick up from where "The Fabulous Riverboat" left off.

A friend of mine liked this installment fairly well, but I think of it more as an arrow in flight than as a standalone work. The bow was strung and pulled taut in "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and let loose somewhere between the end of "The Fabulous Riverboat" and the beginning of this book. It remains in flight throughout this book, destined to find its target in the final installment ("The Magic Labyrinth"). According to the author, the two books were originally intended to be a single installment, which explains a bit.

A good serial has the initial setup, and a series of smaller mysteries orbiting around the central mystery (or mysteries). Each subplot or portion of the underlying plot is carried forward through the eyes of one or more of the characters. This formula should seem familiar to anyone who has watched "Lost" or any other modern serial.

Thankfully, the Riverworld series doesn't quite attempt to spin one's head around quite as quickly or as frequently. What it does is pull an ensemble cast of characters from throughout history and set them in motion on an epic journey to find out the meaning of the new life they have been granted.

This is a pivotal installation in the series, and stops just short of the final goal. It's a good book in a great series, and well worth the time. Quick tip: pick up "The Magic Labyrinth" at the same time, if you're anything like me, you'll want to dig into it right after finishing this book.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

"The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink

On a recent trip, I ran through my own stack of books and borrowed a copy of "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink.

To describe the story in too much detail would be to spoil it. In short, this is a story about a romance (of a sort) set against the backdrop of the collective societal guilt in Germany following the holocaust. The characters are believable and human, and the story on the whole is enjoyable. I suppose I prefer other particular flavors of moral ambiguity a bit better (the film "He Got Game" by Spike Lee, for example), but on the whole I thought the material was interesting and well handled.

As with many translated works, it's a little difficult to get into the flow of the novel, the prose just doesn't sing or grab your attention in quite the same way. Regardless, it's a very quick read, and worth a look.

"The Fabulous Riverboat" by Philip José Farmer

Having read and enjoyed "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and the "Riverworld" novella that predated it, I decided to work my way through Philip José Farmer's "Riverworld" series on a recent trip.

The first novel in the series brings us the first seven years of life on the Riverworld. This book resumes the story not long after from the viewpoint of different characters. The central character of "The Fabulous Riverboat" is none other than Mark Twain, and the eponymous riverboat is his dream made real through sacrifice, gut-wrenching political compromise, and the introduction of industrialized society to the pastoral Riverworld.

Not a lot is revealed of the makers of the Riverworld or their purposes in this installment. From the previous book, we known that riverworld is peopled with the entirety of human history, distributed in a mixture that favors a dominant society in each area, but mixes in people, languages, and ideas from other times and place. We have been told that the goal is to stimulate personal growth, and to give every human the chance to reach a kind of enlightenment. In this installment, there are no big surprises or revelations. Instead, we see how strong characters from history soften or amplify their character over the years.

This book is a smallish stepping stone in the epic series, but it's an enjoyable one. Stay tuned for the upcoming review of "The Dark Design", in which the series really hits its stride.

"Feersum Endjinn" by Iain M. Banks

I picked up the last three of Iain M. Banks science fiction novels ("Feersum Endjin", "Inversions", and "Matter") the other day at the American Book Center in Amsterdam.

Of the three, "Feersum Endjin" was my least favorite. It follows three main characters as they attempt to avert a crisis threatening their world. One of the characters has a diminished capacity (read: funny spelling), which usually doesn't work very well for me. In the case of someone like Irvine Welsh, the spelling makes the work, it's presenting and preserving the word as spoken. In this case, it's a bit of a strain.

As in many of the author's works, people can be resurrected (restored from tape, basically). Unlike previous works, each person has a limited number of lives (eight physical lives, followed by eight virtual lives in storage). The limit is introduced briefly and only really made use of for a single character. It would be a good idea for a longer series, where there was time to get used to the idea, here it's not well explored. What is interesting is the idea that the dead are routinely in contact with the living in this world. That too is mentioned a few times, but isn't really stretched all that much.

The characters and their stories move forward in parallel until at last they intertwine near the end of the story. This is a technique Banks uses to good effect in books such as "Matter", "Excession", and "Look to Windward". For "Endjin", there just isn't enough about each thread to make the overall tapestry as appealing.

I've now read all of his science fiction novels, they are almost all enjoyable. If I had to suggest one to skip, this would be the one.

"Inversions" by Iain M. Banks

I'm still working my way through the last remaining Iain M. Banks novels, and have recently finished "Inversions".

This book alternately presents two stories of unrequited love set in a medieval world. One story follows a court physician through the eyes of her apprentice. The other follows the king's bodyguard and chief concubine through war, intrigue, and treachery. Both are very well handled, and as with other non-Culture books like "The Algebraist", Banks shows that he can do just as well starting from scratch as he can extending and expanding his own ideas.

Like "The Steel Remains" by Richard Morgan, "Inversions" is a departure into a new genre, or at least a new facet of the same genre. In fact, if it weren't for a few key points handled in a skillfully vague way, this would be a period romance rather than science fiction.

For readers who are familiar with Banks' Culture novels, there are often forays by citizens of the Culture into less advanced societies. Banks does a great job of taking two engaging and only tangentially related stories set on the same world and making us question whether there isn't some kind of interference by a group like the Culture at work. It would be hard to argue that there wasn't one agent of a higher power at work in the book, and it's tantalizing to consider who (if anyone) might also be more than they seem.

This is a lovely book that still has its share of blood, but is a whole lot lighter than "Against a Dark Background", "Use of Weapons", and "Consider Phlebas". It's a great book, and makes me want to give some of the author's mainstream fiction a try.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

"Riverworld and Other Stories" by Phillip José Farmer

In between reading "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and "The Fabulous Riverboat" by Philip José Farmer, I took a brief detour and read "Riverworld and Other Stories", which contains the original novella on which the Riverworld series is based.

I would recommend reading the Riverworld novella after "To Your Scattered Bodies Go". As a reader, it's a lot easier to digest the background concepts if you're reading about them as a character experiences them for the first time. In the novella, we join the characters some years after the initial resurrection, without a lot of clear exposition up front. Without having read them, I think of the novella as a beta version of the fifth and six novels, which cover side trips outside the main arc of the Riverworld storyline.

Although the Riverworld novella is the highlight of the collection, there are other entertaining moments. I was surprised to learn that "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol" was first published in Playboy, and yet "J. C. on the Dude Ranch" was not. Both are fun and raunchy stories, and wouldn't be out of place a few pages away from a centerfold. "The Problem of the Sore Bridge" was also a fun one for anyone who's a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle with a lot more humor and a dash of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure.

In short, if you can find a copy of the collection, pick it up, but read the novella at least after "To Your Scattered Bodies Go".

(If you want more information about Philip José Farmer and his work, I'd suggest taking a look at

Friday, 8 May 2009

"To Your Scattered Bodies Go" by Philip José Farmer

I finally got a chance to swing by the excellent Book Exchange here in Amsterdam. Although the owner claims not to know much about Science Fiction, they have a pretty impressive collection way down in their basement.

Having heard about "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" from my good friend Antranig, I scooped up a copy along with four or five other books soon to be featured in their own reviews here.

With most Science Fiction novels, there are a few central conceits that take life beyond what we consider normal at the moment. The ability to teleport by thought alone, as in "The Stars My Destination", for example. The central conceits of "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" are grand in scope and presented well.

At a stroke, Farmer erases the physical realities underlying almost all of the world as we know it. All of human history has been recorded, and 36 billion humans are resurrected at the same time and laid out along a great river than winds around the surface of an entire planet. All are reborn in a youthful and vigorous body based on their own, minus any defects or injuries. No one ages physically beyond the apparent age of 25. Injuries heal at an amazing rate, eyes and limbs lost regrow. Those who die in this new world are reborn yet again somewhere else along the river.

There is time, land and food enough for everyone to live in peace and comfort. Instead, humans quickly recreate the concepts of scarcity and wealth, and soon move on to recreate slavery, trade, and war. War and preparations for defense drive men to develop technology. In this installment, society progresses to the Stone Age within days of the resurrection.

One of the chief ideas of this new world is the idea of the soul. Later science fiction authors like Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Richard Morgan, and Philip K. Dick treat human experience as something that can be recorded and replayed. A clone with our experiences is in essence the same as the original. Each copy of a person that is killed falls into nothingness, even if a new and identical individual is recreated at a later stage.

In the Riverworld, Farmer makes it clear that each recreated body houses the same original soul. If two of the same bodies are recreated, only one will be animated with the living spirit of its owner. There is a connection between soul and body (a silver cord, if you will). If a person dies too many times, their soul loses its affinity for its body and is lost. If a person reaches a state of enlightenment, they become one with the oversoul.

This emphasis on philosophy and religion is a current that travels throughout the series, and is part of its enduring charm. We are not reading about Flash Gordon narrowly cheating death time and time again. We are reading about characters who continue to live and grow beyond the bounds of our short terrestrial lives. They have seen beyond the veil of death and only have new questions confronting them.

It's a classic in the best sense, and well worth the time.