Saturday, 30 January 2010

"Star Maker" by Olaf Stapledon

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

--Dante, "Inferno", Canto I
 In many Science Fiction novels, there is a central conceit, a fantastic and key difference, an idea that shapes the world we explore through the printed page.  Works like Richard K. Morgan's "Market Forces" and his Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy explore the passions of our present amplified through technology.  These are enjoyable works, engaging works, but are the red meat of Science Fiction in all its lusty, escapist glory.

"Star Maker" is a different kind of novel, that presents a central philosophy, a central question, and strives to answer it.  The question could be phrased as "What motivates God?" or "What is the nature of the universe that we experience and the creative force that caused it to come into being?".

In "Star Maker", there are no ships, no obelisks, no buried artifacts, no portals to other worlds.  It is only awareness that makes the journey possible.  The story begins with a man who is deep in thought outside his home on a starry evening.  Like a dreamer becoming lucid, he slips in an instant beyond ordinary reality and travels to distant worlds by means he doesn't understand and can't fully control.  Over time, we learn that he has become caught up in the search for the Star Maker.  He and his eventual companions explore and increase their awareness, which makes it possible for them to perceive more, explore more, until they eventually are capable of perceiving the whole of the universe and beyond.

Stapledon's wrote "Star Maker" in the period between the two world wars, and World War I is a central player in the introduction to his "Modern Theory of Ethics" (full text online).  Among many things, he believed that each of us has an underlying "real will" that takes into account the goals of consciousness itself.   "Star Maker" is a broad stage on which this idea is played out.

This is an exhilliarating and at times exhausting book, but is truly great and worth reading.  Now on to a bit of red meat.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

"Marsbound" by Joe Haldeman

It's easy to think of legendary Science Fiction authors in the past tense.  If you're like me, you may have encountered classics like "Forever War" decades after they were written.  If you're a fan of used book stores and are reading an older edition of  "Forever War", the "other works by" page at the front or back of the book might give you the idea that Haldeman hasn't done anything in a while.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Joe Haldeman has been hard at work for decades turning out a great body of novels and short stories, including quite a few Nebula and Hugo award winners.  Along the way, he's revisited the world of "Forever War" a few times (in "Forever Free" and "A Separate War"), and written two novels ("Planet of Judgment" and "World Without End") set in the Star Trek universe (original series), which I can't wait to track down.  He wrote the screenplay for "Robot Jox" as well (here's hoping the film version of "Forever War" will fare better).

"Marsbound", published last year in paperback, is a story about a girl who comes of age just as humanity is establishing its first colony on Mars.  In Philip K. Dick's novels (such as "The Divine Invasion" or "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch"), the lives of human colonists are both harsh and tedious, but mostly the latter.  Theirs is a life of awful isolation and drudgery from which they try to escape, and rarely succeed.

The colony in "Marsbound" is a more hopeful affair, an energetic team of  pioneers and their children.  There is hard work, and drudgery, and the conditions are dangerous, but there is also comradery, humor and even romance.  Carmen is coming of age at the perfect time to find her place in the world, and to witness and participate in amazing events.  The main character of "Accidental Time Machine" finds his way out of the doldrums of his wasted youth and eventually hits his stride (a brisk jog settling into a comfortable walk).  Carmen finds her pace (and place) early, and sprints through the amazing times in which she lives.

This is a hopeful and human novel, and well worth reading.

Friday, 8 January 2010

"The Accidental Time Machine" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman has an intelligent and natural style that's hard to resist.  Although his grasp of future science is good (sometimes even eerie), he never forgets about the characters who are our means of experiencing his ideas. Their lives alternate between drudgery and terror, between absurdity and triumph.  They are distinctly human characters, and the main character of "The Accidental Time Machine" is no exception.

Matt Fuller is a doctoral student whose life has stalled out and now sits on the edge of complete failure.  He discovers that a small component built for one of his advisor's experiments has the ability to travel forward in time.  He siezes the opportunity to find greatness in the most harebrained way, and his stuck life lurches into high gear.  His is a fool's journey straight from the Tarot, and is well underway when we meet him.  His failed dissertation is the cross on which he is the hanged man, and his discovery of the time machine just as life as he knows it ends is a great example of  Death as transformation.

Time travel is well-trod terrain for Science Fiction authors of all stripes, and Haldeman is more than equal to the challenge.  Like the main characters in Robert Heinlein's "Door into Summer" and "Farnham's Freehold", Matt Fuller enters into a relationship that sits outside the boundaries of normal time, but never comes across as quite as creepy as the protagonist of either of those books.  Like the main character in Nicholson Baker's "Fermata", Matt's honesty defuses and redeems the awkward and embarrasing situations he encounters with his companion Martha.  They develop a partnership, a "conspiracy of two", a marriage, and this is only one of the pleasures of the book.

This is a quick read, exciting, funny, and full of character.  Very highly recommended.

Friday, 1 January 2010

"Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement

I finished "Mission of Gravity" a while ago, and have had some time to think about it since.

This book has a great central conceit. On Earth, gravity varies a small amount, but is roughly constant. On Mesklin, the planet featured in "Mission of Gravity", gravity varies from around 3 times Earth gravity at its equator to hundreds of times Earth gravity at the poles.

We experience the world primarily through the eyes of the crab-like Mesklinites enlisted by their Earth allies to complete the titular mission. Through their experiences, Clement does a great job of fleshing out this world and the limits imposed. Plants, animals, and societies are adapted to the local conditions, and as the conditions vary, so do each of these.

Although the Mesklinites are not as alien in temperament as we might expect, they are not portrayed as savages or cannon fodder (as, for example, the aliens in "Jem"). They are canny partners who are less technically advanced than Earth men, but who understand that their ability to operate unaided on the planet gives them leverage.

The characters and narrative of "Mission of Gravity" are solid, but the greatness of this book rests on the strength of its central conceit and the detail with which it's brought to life. Highly recommended.