Friday, 23 April 2010

"Search the Sky" by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

Hot on the heels of reading "The Space Merchants", I devoured "Search the Sky", another collaborative work between Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.

There's a long tradition of stories in which a man whose world (and world view) are close to our own travels through a series of (from our perspective) oddly unbalanced worlds. You could pick half of the plots of any of the Star Trek series as examples ("Ryker finds love on a world where everyone is androgynous and heterosexuality is a crime"). These episodic sketches are the bread and butter of science fiction. Take the world, put it a bit out of balance, give it a spin, and watch it crash down. "Gulliver's Travels" is another wonderful example. A man steeped in the ideas of his age has his beliefs tested as he experiences different societies in his journeys.

In "Search the Sky", we follow a space traveler (Ross) who travels from a relatively normal (if stagnant) colony and visits isolated Earth colonies in search of answers to his colony's problems. He jumps from one monocultural frying pan to another, testing ideas about age, gender, and diversity itself. He returns enriched, and vows to share that experience with anyone who'll listen.

Travel tests your limits, shows you different ways of viewing the world and handling even the simplest of questions common to all people ("What's for dinner?" is an example you could spend a lifetime mapping out). This kind of diversity is key to the strength of the human race in "Search the Sky", and I'd like to believe it's the same with life.

This is a fun book, and a quick read. Highly recommended.

Friday, 16 April 2010

"The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

I'm continuing to work through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, I was pleased the other day to finally find a copy of "The Space Merchants" by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, one of the few remaining books in the series to have eluded me thus far.

Although there's a bit of corporate warfare and global overcrowding mixed in as well, this is largely a book about a consumer society grinding towards an end in which free space and raw materials can only be found on other planets (Venus in this case). Fittingly, we experience this material world through an advertising man.

Philip K. Dick wrote a lot about salesmen, both in his science fiction, and in his straight fiction like "In Milton Lumky Territory" and "Mary and the Giant". He focuses on the hopelessness, boredom, powerlessness of junior salesmen at stores, and the isolation of a travelling salesman driving from town to town. These men are a step above serfs in the commercial world. They're the tax collectors who feed money up to their betters and get to hold onto a bit themselves. The focus of "The Space Merchants" is advertising executives, who are much further up the chain. These are the men who craft the campaigns, who travel the world in style in constant contact with a team of people whose job it is to make their whims reality. Like any good royal court, they also fight for power among their peers.

We follow one of the princes of a major advertising firm (Mitchell Courtenay) as he is stripped of his power and forced to live as a wage slave in the world he helped create. Advertising is everywhere, and products are designed to introduce the consumer to a never-ending chain of addiction (finish a cigarette, have a drink, get a snack, have a cigarette, and so on). In his struggle to regain his power, Courtenay stumbles across conspiracies within conspiracies, which reminded me somewhat of the role-playing game Paranoia, in which no one is allowed to join a secret society, and yet everyone does. That's a roundabout way of saying the book has a good ear for satire, which is one of many things that make this an enjoyable read.

I have great hopes for collaborative works like this, as I've enjoyed Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's works (such as "Mote in God's Eye" and "Footfall") in the past. Whether their writing styles are largely compatible, or they review each other's work, or they have a good editor, the net effect is reading a single author with a single voice. I plan to keep following Pohl and Kornbluth's collaborations, I'll be reviewing "Search the Sky" by the same two authors shortly, and "The Merchants War" (the sequel to "The Space Merchants") as soon as I can find it.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

"A Leg to Stand On" by Oliver Sacks

I finally read "A Leg to Stand On" the other day, and have been thinking about it off and on.  I enjoy Dr. Sacks' writing, from short case studies like "An Anthropologist on Mars" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", to autobiography like "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood".  He has an easy, engaging mix of science and storytelling that just works, and he has a zeal for his topics that's infectious.

"A Leg to Stand On" is a case study and autobiography in one.  It describes Sacks' experience recovering from a serious injury to his leg.  In the 1970s (when his injury occurred), it was more common for patients to experience protracted convalescences, and to have their injured limbs completely immobilized in heavy casts.  For many patients, this resulted in an alienation for the casted body part, and it's this sense of alienation from a part of oneself that's the focus here.  This sense of alienation was not well understood at the time, and generations of patients were unable to convey their experience in a way that brought understanding to their doctors, caregivers, friends and family.  Patients were physically injured, their injuries were addressed surgically, and over time they were physically better.  The physical wellness was the desired outcome.  That they were baffled and terrified during their convalescence was beside the point.

Sacks is an articulate man who is blessed with an eye for detail and a good memory.  He emerged from his convalescence with the desire to document it for the outside world (doctors and laymen alike), and his years of experience documenting similar experiences with his patients put him in a unique position to tell the story and explain the science behind it.  As with all of his case studies, it's the human experiences that shine through amidst the notes on neuroscience (and its history).

An engaging, insightful, and very human story that's well worth reading.