Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I don’t have anything new to post right now, I’ll respond to a mention of this collection on Classics of Science Fiction. And a reminder unusually relevant with this one — Raw Feeds come with spoilers.

Raw Feed (2001): Man in His Time: Best SF Stories, Brian Aldiss, 1989.MNNHSTMBST1989

Introduction” — Aldiss talks briefly about how he was influenced by the first Shakespeare play he read, The Tempest, and how the short story, unlike the novel, has no hero and, again unlike the novel, is never about the search for truth but features a truth of the author’s. Aldiss, responding to a critic’s remark that his stories don’t as much explain as mystify, sees mystification as a tool to reveal the truth that we do not know everything about the universe.

Outside” — This story is dated 1955 (It’s unclear if that’s a date of composition or date of publication.), so it’s possible that it may have been inspired, if Aldiss saw the magazines they were published in, some of Philip K. Dick’s earlier work (he is an acknowledged fan of Dick), specifically the Dick story “Imposter” which has published prior to 1955. On the other hand, it’s possible he came up with the idea for this story all by himself or was inspired by A.E. van Vogt, Dick’s model for some of his earlier stuff. The story here, a man sharing a house with some other housemates, a house that none of them ever leaves, that none of them even has the desire to leave though they can’t see out of it (and get their supplies from the “store”, a small room by the kitchen), and the man eventually discovering that the house is an observatory where humans observe captured, would-be alien Nititian infiltrators (they kill humans and shape themselves into exact replicas), and the man discovering that he is, in fact, one of those Nititian, is pretty Dickian.  The protagonist was so passive because Nititians tend to adopt themselves to the psychological coloration of the humans around them. In this case, a human observer in the house was in the passive, watching mode.

The Failed Men” — An interesting story, a witty look at the uncleavable union of culture and language. The humans of the 24th Century, called the Children by those of that future, are roped into the Intertemporal Red Cross mission made up of humans from many different periods in the future, to save the bizarre, strange case of the Failed Men, a culture of the 3,157th century. They are deformed in shape, and have, for some unknown reason, buried themselves in the Earth. They literally have to be dug out to help them. The 24th Century protagonist, and his comrades from the same century, find the Failed Men so disturbing that psychiatric hospitalization is required. There are hints that some action of the ancestors created the Failed Men, but no one can be sure. No one has been able to fathom the motives for the path they took.  It may have been religious or a failed attempt at transcendence. The Failed Men are no help in explaining their action. Their language is a melange of abstractions, some seemingly redundant, some seemingly contradictory — at least, to a non-native speaker. Continue reading “Man in His Time; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

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Proteus in the Underworld

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (1997): Proteus in the Underworld, Charles Sheffield, 1995.

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Cover by Gary Ruddell

 I got the impression that Sheffield, listed as the main science advisor in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Green Mars, wanted to do a Martian novel of his own. As with the Robinson Martian trilogy, this novel features two groups in conflict over what to do with Mars. Old Mars wants to terraform Mars. It’s opposition wants to alter man for Mars with form-change equipment – a technology of human will and the subconscious altering the human form via biofeedback that figures as the centerpiece of the Proteus series and seems to link it with the McAndrew series. Sheffield not only deals with the surface of Mars but also the Underworld, a series of natural caverns underneath equatorial Mars.

The story involves the seeming failure of the “humanity test” given to human children. (Failure to pass it gets the child killed and sent to the organ banks.) It has failed to detect “feral” and definitely non human forms.

The character of the now retired Bey Wolf (ex-head of the Office of Form Control and hero of the series) was ok, and I liked his many quotations. Likewise, I found his distant relative Sandra Wolf Dearborn acceptable. I didn’t even mind their romance at novel’s end. The plot of who is sabotaging the humanity test kept me turning the pages. Continue reading “Proteus in the Underworld”

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re in the next subcategory of Gunn’s “plots of circumstances” where a protagonist must deal with problems inherent to the world he finds himself.

That subcategory is “a future being in a future world”.

The future is a great place to set a story, and a successful science fiction story only has to worry about the credibility of his imagination, and Gunn notes “credibility can be stretched a long way”.

However, Gunn isn’t too keen on past examples of stories in this subcategory. He thinks its potential has been abused more than any other plot category. Writers wrenched

the future into any shape they liked – utopian writers the foremost among them. They set up unlikely characters doing implausible things in absurd places; the plot form was undisciplined and chaotic.

Modern sf, realistic sf, occurred when readers started to demand plausible future and writers responded. Attendant to that was better characterization and dialogue. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 8”

Year’s Best SF 5

This one mentions a work by Tom Purdom, one of this blog’s pet projects.

Raw Feed (2001): Best SF 5, ed. David G. Hartwell, 2000.Best SF 5

Everywhere“, Geoff Ryman — On first reading, this seems like a pleasant enough, poignant story about a young boy dealing with his grandfather’s death in a utopian future. (As Hartwell notes in the introduction, Ryman is not an author associated with utopias.) Through means never really explained (alternate time tracks in different dimensions of an 11 dimension universe? editing of a life in another dimension?) the sf equivalent of a soul is shunted off to “everywhere”, seemingly to live a past events again. I’m not sure how desirable that would be. I’m also not sure how utopian it is to live in a society of abullients who need a computer to suggest the next recreation activity. Nor will I grant Ryman the hypothesis that a great deal of the world’s problems stem from being not knowing what they next want to do with themselves. Granted, that is a major problem in some people’s lives. More frequently, I suspect, people know what they want to do but can’t, for a variety of reasons, do it. Even assuming a benevolent computer who could surveil you (and not abuse the gathered data), it’s still a creepy idea to be so completely and accurately modeled as to have a electronic nanny suggest the next playtime activity. Ryman recycles an old utopian notion of everybody taking their turn at certain undesirable jobs for “readies” unconvincingly depicted as an alternative to antique money.

Evolution Never Sleeps“, Elisabeth Malartre — This is essentially a hard science, rational, plausible version of all those fifties’ monster sf movies or the revenge of nature films popular in the seventies. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Hitchcock’s The Birds (as the characters point out, it’s scary because the reason the birds become menacing is never explained, formerly benign creatures becoming threatening) and the suggested title for the movie version of events here is “The Attack of the Killer Chipmunks”. A researcher discovers that chipmunks have began to hunt in packs and become a formidable predator of creatures larger than them. As the title points out, there’s absolutely no reason that the process of evolution has stopped working on current lifeforms. Malartre also points out (and I assume it’s true given that she’s a biologist) that true herbivores are rare. Most animals will eat meat if given the opportunity and that meat is easier to digest than plant food. At the end, it’s clear this new breed of chipmunks is willing to attack man. [Incidentally, this version of the story accidentally omitted the author’s ending. Malartre sent me the ending, but I don’t know what I did with it. And, no, we’re not buddies. She put a notice in Locus that readers could request the ending from her.] Continue reading “Year’s Best SF 5”

The U.S.A Trilogy

If you’re a regular reader of science fiction reviews and criticism, you may have heard of the “Dos Passos technique”.

John Brunner was the first to use it in science fiction in 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes them as “modernist.

Other writers followed. Of the top of my head, I can think of Joe Haldeman’s “To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal” and David Brin’s Earth as using it. Some recent works by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I haven’t read yet, have been said to use it.

I’m a fan of the technique and think it quite effective, so, in 1997, I decided to let Dos Passos show me what his technique was.

The John Dos Passos memorial website says

Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”— and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of newsreels, songs, biographies, and autobiography to convey the frenzy of 20th century America’s industrialism and urbanism.

Dos Passos, incidentally, sort of fell out of favor with American literati because he stopped, unlike many of them, being a dupe of communist propaganda.

Dos Passos himself may have disagreed with my wish that more writers take up his style. In a 1918 letter, he said:

“About style—I think that reading people in order to get ‘style’ from them is rather soft-headed. Your style is like the color of your hair or the cut of your pants—half accident, half act of God—to take thought to change or improve it results usually in rank affectation.”

Raw Feed (1997): The U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos, 1930, 1960.USA

I read this trilogy — The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting.

I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy.

The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).

These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place (I was particularly interested in the accounts of labor agitation and Wilson’s Versailles negotiations), it doesn’t work as drama.

Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. (The most memorable was Charley Anderson from Fargo, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a setting of some of the story). All were on the make – at least in The Big Money.

Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal, and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the fictional characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.

I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned. However, the trilogy didn’t work as drama.

Icefire

The brief Garfield Reeves-Stevens series end with a work written with his frequent collaborator and wife Judith.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers techno- or otherwise these days — though in my youth I read most of the Alistair Maclean catalog. It’s a matter of opportunity costs and not that I don’t like them.

However, around Christmas one year I found myself in a crowded house and needed to read something not requiring careful attention.

Raw Feed (1998): Icefire, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1998.Icefire

I read this very marginal sf technothriller (it’s set no more than 8 years in the future) because I’ve admired some of Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ works.

It was a combination suspense thriller and disaster novel. New Zealand and Hawaii get hit but not, unfortunately, the west coast of the US. I liked the idea of using nuclear weapons to collapse the Ross Ice Shelf and create a giant soliton to devastate many of the Pacific Rim economies and create a better situation for instigator China. It’s a return, after a century, of the Yellow Menace to popular fiction though I’m sure this is not the first to revive the Chinese menace – a plausible menace, and certainly there have been Japanese menace novels.

The main attraction of technothrillers seem to be the intricate description of technologies, usually of a military or intelligence variety, and, to a lesser extant, the inner workings of government military and intelligence units. Here, besides a well done calculation on the solition’s effect, we get SR-71s, Cheyenne Mountain, Harriers, and nukes. A lot of technothrillers like made up technology, and we get that here with seemingly too good satellite reconnaissance, a supersonic transport, a neat stealth sub, and the real use for Project HAARP (pinpoint manipulation of the electromagnetic field anywhere on Earth, EMPs to order).

There were a few faults. It seems required (early Frederic Forsyth novels seem the exception) that suspense novels feature romance renewed (as here) or blooming fresh. It was bad enough Cory Rey, oceanographer and expert in fluid dynamics, just happened to be on site without being the ex-lover of co-hero Mitch Webber (unusually cautious for a SEAL). Still, the authors don’t overplay this subplot. (Though we get a developing romance between Major Bailey and her subordinate.) Also, the fate of Charles Quincy Abbott was a bit ambiguous. I assumed he committed suicide. He’s an interesting villain in that he’s not a traitor or dishonorable. He is a representative of the culture of secrecy that, if the novel has a serious point, is the target of this novel. To further his own ambitious and anti-Chinese policy, he first fails to think nukes have been detonated in the Antarctic (though the authors went to Antarctica, this novel doesn’t much convey a sense of place like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica) then keeps the news away from the President and other members of the military. The President, never named, seems to be something of a Clinton stand-in complete with a troubled relationship with the military, though he ultimately comes across, in a brief scene, as a decisive and heroic. Another President unnamed but associated with the word “prudent” (Bush) is fondly remembered. Many lives are lost as the result of this, and he is removed from command. I was surprised how quickly the book started. No desperate race to stop the nukes here – the nukes are detonated early.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Remaking History and Other Stories

Kim Stanley Robinson is another author I like and haven’t read enough of.

So, I’ll continue the alternate history series with this collection.

I do have to say I put Robinson, definitely a political author, in the aesthetically pleasing, politically suspect category.

In the very unlikely (but not totally impossible) event that aliens nominate Robinson and me to come up with a constitution for global governance or the human race will be rendered extinct …. well, best to put your affairs in order if that happens.

Raw Feed (1998): Remaking History and Other Stories, Kim Stanley Robinson, 1991.remaking-history

Venice Drowned” — I’ve gotten the impression reading Robinson’s short stories, that if he could dispense with a plot, he would. This story confirms that opinion. It’s little more than a landscape story; here the landscape is a Venice even more submerged (after a great storm in 2040) than in our time. It’s a landscape being looted by rich tourists. This idea is an old one. It goes back to the first sf appearance of the Statue of Liberty and was better done (without the looting) in Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent”. The plot doesn’t really go very far. At one point, Robinson seems to want to do a ghost story but steps back from that idea.

Mercurial” — This is a fun sf takeoff of Sherlock Holmes, featuring tall, Nordic Freya Grindavik as a decidedly amoral Holmes (though Holmes also was not above letting murderers go, though out of a sense of higher justice) solving the murder of one Malvolio Musgrave, who, like the eponymous character of Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes’ story “The Musgrave Ritual”, is a scheming, dishonest employee who meets his end on Mercury. The narrator is the unwilling crime solver Nathaniel who doesn’t appreciate Grindavik’s amorality. The case involves Mercury’s art world where original artists are oppressed by the weight of the past, and collecting the treasures of Earth is the rage. A clever art dealer figures out a way of passing off his own brilliant work as long lost Earth work – or, more accurately, he alters records to create the illusion his artworks were created by great Earth artists. Philip K. Dick scholar Robinson has a Dickian moment of his own (and makes a good point that reminds me of the discussion of historicity in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) when Nathaniel protests that a beautiful painting isn’t a Claude Monet original. “So what” responds Freya. Robinson makes the valid point that beauty is beauty no matter the source. The forger is exiled to Pluto where he can create his own works free from the distractions of Mercury’s snobbish classicism. The marvelous city moving with Mercury’s terminator featured in Robinson’s Blue Mars makes its first appearance here though the stories are not set in the same universe.

Ridge Running” — Little more than an excuse to write landscape descriptions of the Sierra Nevadas. This story’s thin plot seems to rest on three old friends reasserting their old bonds on a hike. One is worried his work as a lawyer has made him physically weak. Another is recovering from a brain injury (the exact method of the recovery is what give this story its thin sf element). Continue reading “Remaking History and Other Stories”