Saturday, July 24, 2010

SF Masterworks #79: Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time.  Youth movements throughout the Americas and Europe challenged long-accepted gender, racial, and sexual prejudices.  Radical ways of viewing how the world should be often led to direct and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities of besieged institutions, with several of these confrontations having aftershocks that have persisted until the current day.  From the American Civil Rights movement to the bra burnings in several countries to protest the unequal treatment of women to the Stonewall Riots that marked the birth of the gay rights movement, the decade between 1963 and 1973 has spawned social movements that continue today to urge for a new, transformed world where divisions by race, gender, and sexual orientation would no longer exist.

There was an analogue to this in SF during the same time period.  In both North America and Great Britain (and to some extent in the non-Anglophone European countries),writers such as Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel R. Delany began to question why SF could not be more than the exploration of scientific concepts in a fictional setting.  This "New Wave" of writers incorporated some of the ideas and questions raised by the social movements mentioned above into their writings.  In stories such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Ballard's Crash, and Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, issues of social status, gender equality, and sexual identity were explored.  But it was in Delany's 1975 novel, Dhalgren, where each of these important social issues of the time came to find their highest form of expression.

Dhalgren is set in the fictional American city of Bellona, after an apparent, unspecified apocalypse.  But this event is never referred to directly, only implied.  It, along with the resulting chaos, lurk in the background, like an itch that is never truly scratched.  Dhalgren's first paragraphs give clues to just how dense and foggy Delany's story is:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know:  careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

He rubbed his palms against denim.  Where he was, was still.  Somewhere else, wind whined.

The leaves winked.

What had been wind was a motion in brush below.  His hand went to the rock behind. (p. 1)

Here Kid (or sometimes, Kidd) is introduced.  He is a male with no sense of identity; he appears and does not know his name nor remember most of his past.  He is of indeterminate racial background and he is bisexual.  His wandering through Bellona, his hooking up with a quasi-gang known as the scorpions, his interactions with both males and females, white and black alike, are at first told nearly straight-forward.  But there are gaps in what is discussed.  There seem to be nightly horrors that are rarely referenced and never addressed.  Through the book, Kid searches to make sense out of chaos, to forge an identity out of the disparate remnants of his former self.

Delany's story is so encompassing that it is difficult to pick out a single strand (or even three) and say, "this is what the story is really about."  It does not invite easy comparisons, nor does it provide a linear structure.  What one can only hope to do is to take the text as it is and to wrestle with the myriad questions revolving around identity and see if one can forge a self-identification with the text similar to what Kid does with his new life in Bellona.  Although this is not the easiest of stories to read, the effort expended in trying to grasp what is occurring is more than rewarded by the book's end.

Below is an exchange between Kid and a fellow survivor, Tak, discussing not just Bellona, but also the imagination:

"Do you think that's what happened to Bellona?"  Someday I'll die, turned irrelevantly through his mind:  Death and artichokes.  Heaviness filled his ribs; he rubbed his chest for the reassuring systolic and diastolic thumps.  Not that I really think it might stop, he thought:  only that it hasn't just yet.  Sometimes (he thought), I wish I couldn't feel it.  (Someday, it will stop).

"Actually," Tak was saying, "I suspect the whole thing is science fiction."

"Huh?  You mean a time-warp, or a parallel universe?"

"No, just...well, science fiction.  Only real.  It follows all the conventions."

"Spaceships, ray-guns, going faster than light?  I used to read the stuff, but I haven't seen anything like that around here."

"Bet you don't read the new, good stuff.  Let's see:  the Three Conventions of science fiction - " Tak wiped his forehead with his leather sleeve. (Kid thought, inanely:  He's polishing his brain)  "First:  A single man can change the course of a whole world:  Look at Calkins, look at George - look at you!  Second:  The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application:  In a landscape like this, what other kind do we even allow to visit?  Three:  The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure.  Here in Bellona - "

"Maybe that's why I don't read more of the stuff than I do," Kid said.  He had had his full of criticism with Newboy; the noise was no longer comforting.  "Wasn't there a street lamp working on this block?"

Tak bulled out the end of his sentence:  " - in Bellona you can have anything you want, as long as you can carry it by yourself, or get your friends to."

"It's funny, not that many people have that much."

"A comment on the paucity of our imaginations - none at all on the wonders here for the taking.  No - it's a comment on the limits of the particular mind the city encourages.  Who wants to be as lonely as the acquisition of all those objects would make them?  Most people here have spent most of their time someplace else.  You learn something from that." (pp. 372-373)

This is, I believe, a key passage in the book.  Although it can be taken also as an embedded critique of earlier SF, I think the issue of limits and what the city is perceived to encourage its denizens to think and do lies near to the heart of much of the action that transpires here in Dhalgren.  This issue of limits is brought up again later in the novel, in a much more direct fashion:

I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on.  I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good.  That is wrestling with what I have been given.  Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?)  I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion.  But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception.  And what in life can rip that?  Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands?  I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I rage for reasons, cry for pity.  Do with me what way you will.  (p. 583)

This is perhaps the most powerful single moment in Dhalgren.  Kid's questions resonate because so many of us have asked similar questions before?  "Who am I?",  "What am I to do?",  "Why can't I understand?":  these questions and the ones generated from them form the core of our identity shapings.  Kid, stripped of his past (something mentioned directly in this passage), is about to search deep within in an attempt to discover just what sorts of identity he has come to possess.  In the final section of the book, "The Anathemata:  a plague journal," with its marginalia and excerpted texts creating a fractured narrative "time" for the final part of Kid and his companion's experiences in Bellona, this is explored in a fashion where the very confusing layout of these disparate texts serve as a symbol for the inner turmoil that is roiling within Kid.

Is Dhalgren worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most ambitious novels written in the late 20th century.  Thirty-five years later, it still sparks controversy among those who try to process everything that it contains.  Its discussions of gender roles, racial identity, and sexuality are still controversial in many parts of contemporary society and the novel's power to stir strong emotions has hardly abated.  Such powerful works, written in a bold, unconventional narrative style, may not be enjoyed by everyone, but for those who are willing to wrestle with it and to win some sort of understanding (if it only be an understanding of one's own limits to comprehend), Dhalgren is easily one of the best novels of the 20th century in any genre and it likely will continue to be held up as being one of the best New Wave SF novels ever written.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #23: Fletcher Pratt, The Well of the Unicorn

Long before naive Hobbits or ignorant young men (and later, women) had to flee bucolic lands to discover the wider world and their destinies, there were older, less genteel versions of this transformation from peasant to noble.  Often these stories, whether they be Anglo-Saxon or Celtic, dealt with disenfranchised youth seeking to gain revenge on their family's tormentors, often with bloody consequences.  These characters are rarely naive; they know full-well the cruelties of the world.  But yet they are also vulnerable, flawed (anti)heroes.  They are often too quick to judge and find that their mistakes can have deadly results.  Sometimes, these stories are tragic, with the hero dying with the knowledge that his deeds will be ephemeral.  Other times, the peasant does end up being the king, but not always with the promise that all will be well in the kingdom.

Some of the earliest fantasy stories play with these old tales.  The Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, certainly took a keen interest in the myths of the British isles and his writings, stretching over most of the first half of the 20th century, have influenced several generations of writers, including the American writer Fletcher Pratt.Pratt was a journalist, translator, and military historian (there is an award named after him given out annually to the writer of the best Civil War-related book) who began writing SF and fantasy in the 1920s and continuing to do so until his death in 1956.  His 1948 fantasy novel, The Well of the Unicorn, is perhaps his best-known solo effort, as he was more well-known for his SF stories written with L. Sprague de Camp.  It is certainly influenced to some degree by Dunsany, as Pratt alludes to in his "Before the Tale Begins," when he states:

A certain Irish chronicler named Dunsany caught some of the news from this nowhere and set it down under the style of "King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior," but the events he cites took place generations before any told here, and he was only interested in a very small part of them, to wit:  the revolt of King Argimenes.  The Irish chronicler did not tell that the revolt was against the heathen of Dzik, who burst in upon the Dalarnan lands with their gospel and sword in the days when men were living at peace and their problems all seemed solved; though he did say that, like all conquerors, these conquerors had become luxurious. (p. xi)
In this short aside about the setting, not only does the reader learn that Pratt has placed his story within a wider fictional universe that Lord Dunsany had created decades before, but that there are some obvious parallels to be drawn with the spread of Christianity.  Further clues embedded in both the introduction and the main text indicate that this is taking place in an analogue to Scandinavia, with a rough semblance to the confused period of Viking traders, war missions, and competing religious groups.  But despite these intentional similarities to a real historical period (and one that was rife with land disputes and conflicts between different ethnic/linguistic/religious groups), there are some divergences here as well, which Pratt also cautions the reader to consider as s/he reads his tale.

The Well of the Unicorn shows the development of the the young farmer, Airar, who is a Dalecarle, a group of people maltreated by their near-kin, the Vulkings.  As the story opens, the local ruler, Count Vulk the Fourteenth, has raised taxes and is dispossessing all those who cannot pay the sum:

"I have a mission in the Count's name with Alvar Airarson."

"He is not here.  I am Airar Alvarson."

Beyond, Airar could see Fabrizius shake his head - with that expression of decent regret that always covered his baseness.

"Then you stand deputy in his name as heir of the house?"  asked the baliff, more with statement than question.  "In accordance with the statute of the fourth year of Count Vulk, fourteenth of the name, relating to real properties, confirmed by the Emperor Auraris, I make demand on this estate for two years' arrears of the wall tax; and moreover for repayment of certain sums loaned to the estate by one Leonce Fabrizius, the said loan having been duly registered with the chancery of Vastmanstad and attest by the mark of Alvar Airarson."

Airar swallowed and took half a step, but the bailiff surveyed him with the impassive eye of a fish while the Micton archer tittered and nocked a shaft.  "I do not have the money," said he.

"Then in the name of the law and the Count, I do declare this stead called Trangsted forfeit to the Empire.  Yet as it is provided in the statute of the realm that no stead shall be forfeit without price, but acquired by purchase only, I do offer you the sum of one gold aura therefor out of the Count's generosity, and those present shall be witness.  Wherewith you stand quit of all claims against you and go free."  He fumbled the piece from the scrip at his side, bored manner of many repetitions.  For a moment Airar seemed like to strike it from his hand; then seeing the Micton's covetous eye fall toward it, reached instead.

"So now this land and house are the property of our Count.  I call on you to leave it, bearing not more than you carry on your back without setting the bundle down for five thousand paces."  He turned from Airar, business with him done, to look expectant at Fabrizius; but the latter beckoned to Alvarson, who stood a moment with hand on pack, mouth set in a line of mutiny, yet well enough bred to hear what even the Prince of Hell had to say for himself. (pp. 3-4)
This short scene at the very beginning of the novel sets the stage nicely for what follows after.  There is no wasting of time trying to outline who the Dalecarles are or why their land is under the control of the Vulkings; we start with a cruel dispossession and a young peasant kicked to the quasi-medieval curb, left to fend for himself with only a gold coin given in mockery and with only those possessions that Airar can carry on his back.  There is a slight foreshadowing of the resentments that are bubbling up within Airar toward the Count and other Vulkings, sentiments that are played out through the rest of the novel.

The remainder of the story follows Airar from the time that he meets up with rebels against the Vulkings' rule and his travails and hard-earned experience gained passing messages to other groups, his temporary enslavement after a disastrous raid, and then his encounter with the legendary Well of the Unicorn.  This mythical well grants peace to those enemies who sip together from its sweet waters, but at a cost.  This cost is seen as Airar continues to develop, eventually rising to the level of a warleader.

The Well of the Unicorn is not written in the antiquated style that E.R. Eddison favored in his The Worm Ouroboros or Mistress of Mistresses.  Instead, the dialogue is more direct and pared down, with only occasional trappings of medieval local color added to this terse, rather unadorned tale of a man who first seeks revenge, only to find himself later seeking understanding, both of his enemies and then himself.  The story moves at a quick pace for the majority of the novel, as several years pass in the first two hundred pages or so.  However, the story does slow down in the final third, as the initial momentum falters, with the final scenes often lacking the power of the first.  Airar remains an interesting character through this, but the lack of secondary character development negatively impacts several of the scenes toward the end, as instead of there being a good narrative tension between certain characters, their flatness makes their conflicts rather drab affairs.

Is The Well of the Unicorn worthy of being called a "Masterwork?"  It certainly is an easy-to-read early secondary-world fantasy that will remind some of the works of Eddison or Dunsany.  However, Pratt's characterizations are generally poorer than either of the other two and while Pratt is not guilty of some of the excesses with prose that Eddison in particular was infamous for, his rather sparse prose made this novel only a solid, decent read and not one that is particularly memorable.  The Well of the Unicorn perhaps deserves a footnote for being a story that connects the tales of Dunsany and Eddison with the excellent 1954 novel by Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword, but it certainly was not the sort of tale that one would hold up and say "this is one of the best early epic fantasy novels that were published before Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings."  It is not a bad novel, but it certainly is not what I would consider to be Pratt's best work, much less one of the better works of the first half of the 20th century.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SF Masterworks #7: Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny defined my teen years. The Changing Land was the first fantasy I ever read, and with such a strange beginning, I was marked for life. I suspect much of my love for the weird and my lack of patience with generic fantasy and SF tropes comes from Zelazny.

Reading his works is always a pleasant experience, but not having read Lord of Light in English before, I was literally swept off my feet by Zelazny's style. His irreverent use of high style and the ways he mixes the mythical and the technological, the divine and the mundane, are a pure delight to read. I don't like using quotes in my reviews, but in this case a quote is really worth a thousand words, so an exception is in order.

'I have a better idea,' said she. 'Know that under a mortal name am I mistress of the Palace of Kama in Khaipur.'
'The Fornicatorium, madam?'
She frowned. 'As such is it often known to the vulgar, and do not call me 'madam' in the same breath-- it smacks of ancient jest. It is a place of rest, pleasure, holiness and much of my revenue.'
The story is set in a world where a long time ago an Indian generation ship from Earth (or "Urath", as it is called in the book) landed. It didn't take long before the crew took control of all technology and began creating a theocracy based on the Indian mythology, using machines that transfer the mind into another body to achieve both immortality for themselves and the illusion of Karma for the rest of humanity.

But one of their own, one of the First, known as Sidhartha and Budha, as Lord of Light and Tatagatha, as Mahasamatman and also Sam, chooses to rebel against the injustice, and topple the very gods from their throne. Lord of Light begins with the present, as Sam is revived from a state of bodiless "Nirvana" after having lost his gambit to overthrow Heaven. The book then follows the events that led to his downfall to finish with a return to the present and the resolution of Sam's story.

Roger Zelazny dubbed his own works "science fantasy". Whether the term actually means anything or not, he was among the first to mix the two in such a way as to be impossible to say which is dominant. Lord of Light is a pinnacle in that regard. The themes are undoubtedly SF in nature, but the entire approach - from the style of writing and characters' attitude to the story itself - is completely submerged in the realm of Fantasy. As I said before, Zelazny actually uses the contrast between the two genres to both epic and ironic effects. Examples of the former abound in the ways he describes the technologies used by the gods - Agni's fire wand, Shiva's Thunder Chariot etc. - while the latter is contained mainly in the way he describes certain scenes. Apart from the first quote, here's another hilarious one:
He turned and left.
The Lord of Karma made an ancient and mystical sign behind his back.
In Lord of Light Zelazny combines his love for the larger-than-life characters with his love for the tricksters, and his Sam is both a powerful ageless hero, and a gambler and a rogue. The same applies for the other prominent figure among the gods of Heaven - the One in Red, the deathgod Yama, who is both a creature of deadly abilities, and a brilliant engineer and artificer. Duality permeates everything in this book, from the most superficial to the deepest layers, from style to story to characters. Even its tone ever shifts between playful irony and gripping pathos.

Due to its themes and the complete lack of technological explanation, Lord of Light reads just as well now, as it did back in the 60s when it was written. It is a story about rebellion against injustice, and a story of archetypes that never change. It is also beautifully written and masterfully told. I can't recommend it nowhere near high enough.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

SF Masterworks #64: Poul Anderson, Tau Zero

Words and music by Brian May. Thanks to Larry for eyeballing this before I unleashed it upon the world!

In the year of '39
Assembled here the volunteers

Hello and welcome to my review of Tau Zero. Some of the other reviewers have started with Epic poetry, or book quotes. I’ve started with Queen. Why? Because the song could have been written for the book. And both are pretty darn good, once you understand the basic concept. The start of the book introduces you to some of the key characters as the crew begins to gather for launch. The key character is Reymont, the ship’s constable, but this role and the others all develop strongly as the book runs.

In the days when lands were few.

The book is set in a future where the world has almost been destroyed by nuclear war. To prevent this happening again, the world’s nuclear arsenal were given to a small country that was unlikely to be strong enough to try to invade anywhere. This is a novel concept and considering their continued defensive military stance, Sweden remains a logical choice for the role. Of course, as the centre of the world’s weapons and the security, the country is also the hub of world commerce and the language has replaced English as the world trade language. It also plays neatly to the author’s Scandinavian ancestry, which is demonstrated in the book by references to various pieces of song and folklore.

Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn',
The sweetest sight ever seen.

The ship in question is Leonora Christine, a sleek, elegant vessel designed for intergalactic exploration. The primary feature of the vessel, and the key to the plot, is the Bussard drive. This system scoops hydrogen into the engine, and the faster it goes, the more hydrogen is caught and the faster the ship goes, making the ship capable of reaching remarkably high speeds, close to but not touching the speed of light. This means that it is subject to relativity and time dilation, a key theme of both the book and the song. The changing time is measured by the time contraction factor Tau (τ) from which the novel gains its name. Where and v is the velocity as a fraction of the speed of light. At a given velocity, the duration that is experienced on the non-accelerating Earth may be multiplied by tau to yield the duration experienced on board the ship. Therefore, as Anderson writes, "the closer that [the ship's velocity] comes to [the speed of light], the closer tau comes to zero". This is the crux of the book’s science, there is far more but I’ll just recommend you to read the book (and/or Wikipedia) for yourself to find the rest.

And the night followed day, And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside

Okay, in the book there are fifty, neatly in line with the 50/500 rule of a species put forward by Franklin and Soule, which says a short-term effective population size (Ne) of 50 is needed to prevent an unacceptable rate of inbreeding. This also means that there needs to be a lot of relationships, and the partnering of all the people on the ship, with the attendant effects on the moral of people on the ship and the way it is handled forms another key strand in the book, which is played beautifully with the other factors. The information's conveyance is also interesting, coming from a mix of dialogue between characters and commentary from the writer.

For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Ne'er looked back, never feared, never cried.

One of the key factors in the voyage is that, due to the Tau effect, the world is guaranteed to change behind them and the people they used to know will change or die, as will the cultures and lives they once knew. The ways that members of the crew act to keep themselves active and the mission going forward without sliding into reflective misery is a triumph of the book and a marvelous study in human nature. This becomes particularly important after the accident described later.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Ok, this chorus is largely irrelevant to the review; however it’s rather pretty, isn’t it? And one of the touching scenes (Spoiler!) is the Russian engineer breaking down in tears as the last contact with earth arrives, bringing a cradle song from his childhood.

In the year of '39
Came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day.
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born,

This is where the journey should have ended, as the exploration ends and a new colony of earth is formed in a neighboring galaxy with contact with Earth re-established, albeit with some distance lag.

However, something goes awry when the ship hits a forming nebula, locking the engines in the acceleration position with no ability to disengage them without losing the fields that prevent the ship being shredded by radiation. This means that the crew must take desperate decisions on what to do as the ship’s Tau grows ever lower and both the time and distance from earth rise.

Though their hearts so heavily weigh.
For the earth is old and grey
To a new home we'll away,
But my love this cannot be,
For so many years have gone
Though I'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.

With the engines damaged and the world they knew getting further and further away, the crew’s moods and relationships are tested to the extreme, portrayed beautifully in the book as they look for answers to keep themselves occupied and for a way to stop the ship enough to finally land on a planet before they all age too far to start afresh or the universe winds to its end. “What is man, that he should outlive his god?”

So, what can I say? With a deep scientific aspect to the plot, it can be slightly hard to grasp in places. However, the human element in the book is superb, and there’s a wonderful blend of science, humor, romance, action and raw humanity in the face of adversity. I cannot help but recommend this great book, recommended for the 1971 Hugo Award for best novel but beaten by Ringworld, another masterwork to be reviewed here on SFF Masterworks in the near future. And on that note, I shall leave you with the last few haunting lines of 39’.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand,
For my life
Still ahead.
Pity me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

SF Masterworks #72: Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

"It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth.  It is the tale of the disparate people--a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic--who become the rebel movement's leaders.  And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolutions' ultimate success."  (Publisher: Orb Books, 1997 1st edition back cover)

Robert Heinlein won 4 Hugo awards and 3 retro Hugo award for his works including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1967.  He was considered one of the most influential science fiction writers and won the first Damon Knight Grand Memorial Master award for lifetime achievement by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.   Many of the central themes in Heinlein's works included race, individualism, sexual freedom, philosophy and politics. He created many Utopian worlds revolving around political themes from liberal to conservative to fascism to libertarian.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a Utopian tale of a lunar colony in 2075 rebelling against authority and setting up a libertarian style government and is intriguing and thought provoking. The moon has been designated a penal colony and is populated by "loonies,"  who are either prisoners, political prisoners or descendants of prisoners.   Once prisoners have served their sentence they have to continue living on the moon because, after a few months, irreversible biological changes to their body force them to remain. They live in underground colonies and make their livings by exporting ice and wheat to the Earth. The men outnumber the woman two to one which has resulted in woman taking multiple husbands.  There are basically no laws and the population is self regulating.  Their women are held in high esteem and justice is served by ousting the trouble maker through an air lock.   They are loosely regulated by a Warden and all the facilities are controlled by one master computer, the HOLMES IV whose name is Mike.

"Mike was not official name; I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr. Watson before he founded IBM.  This story character would just sit and think--and that's what Mike did.  Mike was a fair dinkum thinkum, sharpest computer you'll ever meet."  (pg 11-12)

The story is narrated in first person point of view by  Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis, a computer technician who takes care of the computer and discovers it has been malfunctioning out of boredom and is making mistakes on purpose.   Because controlling all the lunar functions only take up about 2% of it's operating capacity, the computer started learning as much as possible in it's free time and became self aware. 

"But on Monday, 13 may 2074 I was in computer room of Lunar Authority Complex, visiting with computer boss Mike while other machines whispered among themselves. 

Some logics get nervous breakdowns. Overloaded phone system behaves like frightened child.  Mike did not have upsets, acquired sense of humor instead.  Low one.  If he were a man, you wouldn't dare stoop over.  His idea of thigh-slapper would be to dump you out of bed--or put itch powder in pressure suit.

Not being equipped for that, Mike indulged in phony answers with skewed logic, or pranks like issuing pay cheque to a janitor in Authority's Luna City office for $10,000,000,000,000,185.15--last five digits being correct amount.  Just a great big overgrown lovable kid who ought to be kicked." (pg 13) 

The story is broken up into three sections:  Book 1 - That Dinkum Thinkum  is the prelude to the revolt with Mannie, Wyoming Knott and Professor Bernardo de la Paz deciding, along with "Mike" to form a covert executive cell and begin recruiting members.  Book 2- A Rabble in Arms in which every single person wants to have their say in how the government will be run.  "Mike" is given the persona "Adam Selene" a mysterious rich backer who is the Chairman of the executive cell who never appears in public for security sake.  The professor actually sets up a "congress" simply to keep the people occupied while he and Mannie go down to earth to sell the benefits of a free Luna society.   Book 3 - TANSTAAFL  (after one of Heinlein's saying "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch")  in which Earth attacks and Luna figures out how to counter attack by flinging rocks at Earth.

I was intrigued by Professor Bernardo de la Paz who was an anarchist and when the new congress formed, was surprised they choose him as one of the permanent heads of congress.  He did his best to cast doubts and pick apart their ideas.  Some of his ideas were interesting, but scary to say the least.

"Comrade members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom--if you can keep it.  But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant.  Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word.  I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting--but I would be frightened if you took less than one year.

Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments....

I note one proposal to make this congress a two house body.  Excellent--the more impediments to legislation the better.  But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.  let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority....while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third majority.  Preposterous?  Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law?  And if a law is disliked by as many as one third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?

But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative!  Accentuate the negative!  Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do.  No conscript interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or involuntary taxation.  Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome." (page 301 - 302)

A large part of the story deals with the rights of the individual and does have a big libertarian slant, despite the professors attempts at anarchism and it's interesting to note that other readers believe the book reflects Heinlein's Libertarian beliefs.  According to David Boaz who wrote Libertarianism: A Primer

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property--rights that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force--actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.

Readers have had a hard time separating the author from the story.   In actually, he was very private about his political and religious beliefs.  According to the Heinlein society:

"People with particular slants seem to latch onto one work or another that suits their opinions or biases and take it as being representative of all of Heinlein. "Starship Troopers" is regarded by some 'fascist' (particularly after the hideous distortion presented in the movie version), it isn't . "Stranger in a Strange Land" became a banner book for liberals--yet it was written at the same time as "Starship Troopers" so couple the contradictions together on that account. Libertarians adore "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" with the anarchistic type of society that works so well, yet Heinlein came along with "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" and smashed that same perfect setup to bits, showing the potential unpleasant outcome. For every political or social stance you care to choose to assign to Heinlein you can probably find something in his writing to support that opinion... and something else to contradict it"

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of stories about politics and wasn't too particularly thrilled with the story as the majority of the book is taken up with discussing politics and setting up the new government.  It was rather dry at times and the narrator's voice takes some getting used since he spoke with a dialect closely resembling Russian eliminating articles and some pronouns.  However, it is well written and does provides many diverse viewpoints for debate about the pursuit of liberty.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #21: E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses

Let me gather my thoughts a little, sitting here alone with you for the last time, in this high western window of your castle that you built so many years ago, to overhand like a sea eagle's eyrie the grey-walled waters of your Raftsund.  We are fortunate, that this should have come about in the season of high summer, rather than on some troll-ridden night in the Arctic winter.  At least, I am fortunate.  For there is peace in these Arctic July nights, where the long sunset scarcely stoops beneath the horizon to kiss awake the long dawn.  And on me, sitting in the deep embrasure upon your cushions of cloth of gold and your rugs of Samarkand that break the chill of the granite, something sheds peace, as those great sulphur-coloured lilies in your Ming vase shed their scent on the air.  Peace; and power; indoors and out:  the peace of the glassy surface of the sound with its strange midnight glory as of pale molten latoun or orichalc; and the peace of the waning moon unnaturally risen, large and pink-coloured, in the midst of the confused region betwixt sunset and sunrise, above the low slate-hued cloud-bank that fills the narrows far up the sound a little east of north, where the Trangstrómmen runs deep and still between mountain and shadowing mountain.  That for power:  and the Troldtinder, rearing their bare cliffs sheer from the further brink; and, away to the left o them, like pictures I have seen of your Ushba in the Caucasus, the tremendous two-eared Rulten, lifted up against the afterglow above a score of lesser spires and bastions:  Rulten, that kept you and me hard at work for nineteen hours, climbing his paltry three thousand feet.  Lord!  and that was twenty-five years ago, when you were about the age I am to-day, an old man, by common reckoning; yet it taxed not me only in my prime but your own Swiss guides, to keep pace with you.  The mountains; the unplumbed deeps of the Raftsund and its swinging tideways; the unearthly darkless Arctic summer night; and indoors, under the mingling of natural and artificial lights, of sunset and the windy candlelight of your seven-branched candlesticks of gold, the peace and the power of your face. (pp. 3-4)

The beginning to English fantasist and scholar E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses (1935) is a huge tangle to unravel.  I have quoted the entirety of its introductory paragraph in order to illustrate Eddison's tendency to utilize 17th century writing patterns in this dual-world court intrigue fantasy.  The story begins with an eulogy, addressed to the now-deceased Lessingham.  Based on references to "Arctic summers," "Samarkand," and "the Caucasus," among others, it is clear that the introduction takes place in our world.  But this is only a fleeting scene, as the flashbacks that constitute the vast majority of Mistress of Mistresses take place in a Renaissance-level society in the secondary realm of Zimiamvia.  The diction of this eulogy is purposely archaic in order for Eddison to prepare the reader for the type of society that will be found in Zimiamvia.  This is not to say that parsing Mistress of Mistresses will be easy; if anything, the archaic style employed here throughout the book, full of untranslated quotations from Greek, Latin, and French authors may raise too high of a barrier for several readers.  But for those who persevere or who perhaps have some grounding in at least one of these languages, this novel does offer up some rewards for the diligent concentration required to unlock its secrets.

Mistress of Mistresses is a political intrigue.  The old king, Mezentius, has recently died and his heir is viewed as a weakling.  The Three Kingdoms are ripe for a coup d'etat and the main conspirators are Duke Barganax and the Vicar of Rerek, Horius Parry.  However, it is the younger version of Lessingham, Parry's cousin, who lies at the heart of this.  Just who or what is Lessingham and what abilities does he have to alter the course of events in Zimiamvia?

It would be a mistake to view this book merely as a political fantasy.  Yes, there are countless asides to discuss matters of culture, but what might be most striking about Eddison's novel is how the characters are portrayed.  In most of the political intrigue fantasies of the past generation, members of the nobility generally have their opinions, attitudes, and expressions played up in such a fashion that the reader can detect the dissonance between what is being said and what is truly occurring behind the scene.  The nobility, unless they are seen as taking the side of the commoners, rarely is portrayed in a positive light in these fictions.  However, in Eddison's tale, he chooses to go another route, as he uncritically portrays the lords and ladies as being above the fray, as the quote below illustrates:

'I would give much,' said Barganax, 'but to see your mind.  Do you understand, that every road I tread leads to you?'

'I have heard you say so,' she said.  'No doubt your grace will accept the same comforting assurance from me.'

'It is true I am a proud man,' said Barganax then; 'yet I doubt my pride for this.  For this, I must know in myself perfection.'

Fiorinda smiled.  It was as if the termlessness of some divinity, clear, secure, pitiless, taking its easeful pleasure in the contemplation of its own self, lay veiled in that faint Olympian smile (pp. 128-129)
"Olympian" perhaps is the best word to describe these characters and their actions.  They are distant, far removed from quotidian concerns.  Theirs is a game of thrones, not in the petty, bourgeois understanding of political manipulation and maneuverings that are often covered in minute, almost pornographic detail in some more recent political fantasies, but rather it is an intricate dance, a bon mot here and there, a slicing wit that defeats an opponent just as readily as a bare bodkin may.

This does not mean that Mistress of Mistresses makes for a thrilling read.  It is a stately novel, one that depends more on the elevated language of its prose than it does on plot or characterization.  There are places where this high language can become overwhelming, with clothing descriptions that are a match for the worst excesses found in more recent series such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series.  But yet despite the oft-sluggish pacing of the novel and the distant, Olympian feel to the characters and their motivations, Mistress of Mistresses does contain elements of eventful intrigue.  The machinations of Parry and Barganax, hideous and repulsive as they may be when examined closely, are yet strangely fascinating.  The enigmatic Lessingham also serves to provide enough intrigue to this novel as to make the journey toward the somewhat ambiguous conclusion somewhat worthwhile.

Mistress of Mistresses is an odd story to judge in regards to its current status.  Are there elements contained within it that influenced other writers?  Yes, particularly in the way that Eddison established his court intrigues, although this is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the fashion in which he accomplished this.  His use of elevated language is often elegant, if somewhat archaic to readers more accustomed to less high talk.  The story itself is not all that memorable, at least not in comparison to his earlier 1922 novel, The Worm Ouroboros, nor is it something that can easily be parsed by contemporary readers.  Yet there is something about this novel that makes me what to re-read and reconsider it at length sometime, a quality that not too many novels possess.  Therefore, I would argue that it is a "Masterwork," but of a type that is more suitable for those who prefer to wrestle with the text in order to appreciate its more intricate details than it would for those who want a quick and easy-to-process story.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SF Masterwork #73: The Man in the High Castle

Few works are more synonymous with the alternate history subgenre than Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Starting from the question “What if the Axis Powers had won the war?”, Dick portrays a version of the 1960s very different than our own. A conquered America is split between Japan and Germany, the two dominant superpowers who happen to have engaged in a Cold War of their own, complete with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Anti-Semitism is still rampant in the German state and Americans struggle to adjust to the cultural changes introduced by the conquering pair. A Jew hiding from Nazi persecution participates in the fabrication and forgery of “authentic” American artifacts to be sold to unknowing Japanese collectors. His ex-wife hopes to track down and protect the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book of resistance propaganda portraying a present in which the Allies had won the war.

The Man in the High Castle is a clear example of alternate history at its strongest, but at the same time it manages to be so much more. Alternate histories, at their cores, represent a combination of reality and potentiality; challenging the bedrock of immutable history through the simple question of “What If?.” Although Dick does address this question as it relates to the outcome of World War II, he seems more interested in the relationship between history and reality itself than the specifics of an America occupied by Imperial Japan. The details are there, certainly, but as the book progresses they seem to fade more and more into the background.

Instead, Dick focuses his literary energy on the trio of subplots mentioned above. The links between these threads are tenuous at best and while there are brief moments of excitement, the majority of the book is fairly dry. Dick forgoes thrilling chase scenes or pulpy gunfights, opting instead to use his characters as philosophical surrogates in his own examination of the various ways the past can shape the present. This results in a startling depth to Dick’s work, one which elevates The Man in the High Castle from a simple alternate history to a definitive genre Masterwork.

The quiet scenes in which the characters contemplate their reality are the highlights of the book and fortunately there are many. Dick utilizes multiple methods to kindle these thoughts, ranging from the monologue of a rich counterfeiter who argues that it is not the actual history of an object that matters but rather the belief surrounding it to the a connoisseur of American antiquity weighing the artistic merit of a unique but abstract creation. The most effective device however, is Dick’s fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a doppelganger for The Man in the High Castle itself. He returns to this book within a book repeatedly, using the in-universe alternate history to self-referentially analyze the allure and impact of an imagined reality. In true PKD fashion, all of this talk of belief and actuality ultimately creates an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty, inviting the reader to read and reread passages which at first seem innocuous.

While Dick’s alternate vision of America must be praised for its depth and relative originality, the quality of the text itself varies throughout. I would hesitate to say the book was an easy read. Not because of the philosophical questions Dick raises (though they do inspire distraction) but rather a consequence of the often clumsy prose that demands careful rereading and the disjointed narrative style that prevents the reader from fully immersing in the work. It’s difficult to conclude if the sometimes awkward language is the fault of Dick himself or merely the result of fifty years of change, but the difficulty of reading the end result is still the same.

Even ignoring the sometimes problematic prose, the weight of years has surely reduced the shock value this book must have once produced. Published in 1962, The Man in the High Castle originally spoke to an audience for whom World War II was a distinct memory, not a history lesson. The culture being replaced was their own, not some version of American life that has changed significantly in the past fifty years. Now, half a century later, the story still resonates with readers but significantly less so than it must have with the men and women to which a Nazi-dominated globe was a frightening possibility.

On a surface level, the narrative and some of the more cosmetic attributes of The Man in the High Castle show signs of wear. However, the deeper aspects of the book feel no less poignant, provoking the same questions of reality, culture, perception and history that likely elevated it to win the 1962 Hugo Award so many years ago. A true genre must-read, Dick’s Masterwork is a book that speculates about speculation itself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fantasy Masterwork #20: Jack Finney, Time and Again

It is the 1950s and the world is changing by leaps and bounds. Technology is developing faster than ever before and the US government is willing to try almost anything in the name of science if they can be the first to do it, which leads them to a very unorthodox time travel experiment. Simon (Si) Morley a designer/illustrator and former military man, living in Manhattan is recruited by a secret organization to be trained as a time traveler.

The first section mainly has to do with Si's training, which when all is said and done seemed over blown given the simple mechanism for his travel. This section also dithers about too much and was quite slow. But the themes of the story are what make this an engrossing read with its vivid and disarming ability to place you in the moment, especially when Si makes his way to the late 1800s in search of a simpler time. There was a gorgeous scene of a sleigh ride through Manhattan that was particularly well done. The descriptions of NYC during that time period feel real and spot on as Si explores the city he doesn't know and gets a taste of life as it was. Time and Again also features many period photos and drawings, which portray the places Si talks about and visits.

"I turned to look, and here it came straight for us, a team of immense white horses, manes flying, hoofs pounding, drawing a red-and-brass fire engine, the driver slashing his whip at the horses, a flat steam of white smoke link out behind it like the wake of a ship."

Si also bears witness to a famous calamity of NYC history, which is delved into with impeccable detail to history that is at time harrowing, but totally entrapping. There is no technological science involved in the travel although some psychological devices such as hypnosis are employed. This twist of the story makes the whole process of traveling too simple after all the training Si goes under to get to that point. That time is just a state of mind can be difficult to believe especially of hardened time travel story readers, but it somehow works as this is a story very much left open to interpretation as to whether Si's travels happen or are somehow caused by his training techniques. The idea of places being frozen in-time or being snapshots of how places once were is quite an intriguing as a time travel device.

"This park itself is something of a miracle of survival. Right here in the heart of what must be the world's most changeable city are, not just acres, but several square miles that have been preserved practically unchanged for decades."

Time and Again is in is essence a time capsule of a New York that is more than worth stopping in to see how the middle class lived, loved, and played. If you're not at all interested in life in New York at this time period, I wouldn't recommend the story. Also, the first part of the book moves very slowly and methodically with only a few what I'd call action scenes, but the descriptions and characters are richly woven. This is a journey for love and discovery about the true desires of yourself. Si never feels entirely comfortable in his life in the 50s. He is doing what is expected of him and when he has a chance to go to the past and almost start anew he grabs the opportunity for all that it is worth. Even though he is tries to be careful in the past he tries to experience the places and most importantly the people to the best of his ability. Si falls in love with the realness of the people of the 1880s often describing them as more human than in his own time. Their faces telling stories that would fill whole books.

"Now I saw her face clearly and glanced quickly away so that I wouldn't offend her, because her face was scarred with dozens of pitted cavities, and I remembered that smallpox was almost commonplace still. No one else paid her the least attention,"

At first glance, Time and Again does seem a little dated, considering how the main character‘s job seems so foreign for readers reading this for the first time in 2010. However, the most irritating part is the way women are portrayed and treated. There are two main female characters and one all but fades away from the story even after getting deeply involved with the secret project. The other woman, meanwhile, comes from the 19th century where she is already subservient. The latter is easier to accept since the last two-thirds of the story takes place in the past. In both cultures women are regulated to more playthings or support roles. One scene during the early days of Si's training was particularly annoying as three characters are involved with making jest about their light-hearted desires for a certain secretary. Little else would be different if the main character had traveled from our time period since it was about him trying to fit into the 1880s.

Is this a "Masterwork"? Time and Again does have a timeless appeal that has grown in the decades since its release, which makes it a Masterwork in my book. Having read Time and Again I can clearly see how newer Time Fantasies have been influenced by it, such as more recent greats like The Traveler's Wife or Forever by Peter Hamill, the latter of which also portrays a NYC of the past only more all encompassing as it travels through the founding of NYC to present time, but showing as much detail and love of the past as Time and Again shows us.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

SF Masterworks #4: Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

World War Terminus has been and gone, leaving an Earth where radioactive dust keeps the few survivors who haven't emigrated inside for parts of the day; an Earth where real animals are now status symbols; an Earth where renegade androids are 'retired' by bounty hunters.

In the first chapter we meet Rick Deckard, one of these bounty hunters, as he argues with his wife before work about which setting to put their mood organs on. He then tends to his electric sheep and dreams of owning a real animal. Immediately, we are introduced to one of the main themes of this novel: that of reality. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick explores thoroughly the concept of reality - by showing us androids who could almost pass for human if not for a lack of empathy; and a whole business set-up to provide for electric animals; and the theory of Mercerism.

I was struck by the bleak tone, and the fact that Mercerism - a pseudo-religion - is one of the few aspects of life to give people hope, since this could be said to be a false hope. At one point Deckard thinks the following: "This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die. Eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another, finally the name 'Mozart' will vanish, the dust will have won" and this idea that the world is gradually crumbling shows us why people cling to Mercerism, and the status of owning animals as a way to make it through each day.

I have to confess that I was somewhat reluctant to pick up both my first Masterwork in this project and my first Philip K. Dick novel, I don't quite know why. Perhaps because the story is so well-known thanks to Bladerunner; perhaps because I have always been reluctant to pick up the classics of the genre, out of a fear that they would be extremely dry and unreadable. I'm happy to report that the reverse is true - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was extremely readable, at times very tense and atmospheric. There was a particular scene later in the book where an android coldly mutilates a spider and observes its ability to run that made me literally shudder. I was surprised that this novel still has such power and intensity after such a long while of being published.

I really enjoyed the absurd humour that provided such a difference in tone to the bleak hopelessness that prevails throughout most of the rest of the novel. The fact that Isidore was unable to tell the difference between a real cat and an electric animal made me squirm a little with discomfort, but I also appreciated the dark humour. The whole presence of the electric animals was amusing, and yet somehow sad and desolate.

PKD's writing is compulsive and spare, but at times it does meander into somewhat melancholic psychedelia, where PKD becomes more rambling and less punchy. There were a couple of passages that I felt could have been removed entirely to make the novel read better.

Altogether, though, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction triumph, and certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list. It can be read on so many different levels - purely as a psychological thriller or as a social commentary about what defines a human being. It is definitely worth multiple reads to fully enjoy the experience. Recommended.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

SF Masterworks #10: Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Short fiction of 5,000 to 20,000 words dominated American science fiction in the 1950s.  Published almost exclusively in genre-specific magazines that had only been existence for twenty years or less in most cases, these magazines made a name for themselves by being known for carrying the works of say a Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, or Robert Heinlein, to name just a few of the many renowned SF writers whose legacies are tied, at least in part, to the 1950s pulps.

There was another author writing then who also was mainly a short fiction writer, one not quite so famous as the more prolific writers mentioned above, but one whose works have received much praise in the near half-century since his death.  Cordwainer Smith is the pseudonym for a top Pentagon official, Paul Linebarger.  Linebarger was the son of an American legal adviser to Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and he lived in China for much of his childhood, taking in elements of Chinese culture that would later be utilized in several of his fictions.  Linebarger also became known for writing the training manual that the Pentagon used for maintaining psychological warfare.  Yet despite these accomplishments, Linebarger was dissatisfied and he decided to try his hand at writing SF under the chosen pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith.

This collection, The Rediscovery of Man, contains most of Smith's published short fiction.  There were several editions.  First, there was the 1970s The Best of Cordwainer Smith, from which the Gollancz edition of The Rediscovery of Man, and then in 1993 NESFA Press released its own The Rediscovery of Man, which included even more of Smith's short fiction, leaving out only one novel and a couple of incomplete drafts.  It is this NESFA edition that was read for this review and while there are probably differences in organization (the NESFA edition placed the stories in a rough storyline chronological order rather than a publishing order), there should not be too many problems in discussing the overall value of Smith's stories, whether they be published in the smaller Gollancz edition or the larger NESFA one.

Smith's fiction, despite being written between 1950 and his death in 1966, has aged rather well, at least in comparison to his contemporaries.  While he is not known for having a great literary style nor for a series of spectacular events within them, Smith's fiction contain a mixture of elements that make reading his stories a pleasure.  Before discussing the Instrumentality history, it perhaps is best to note that Smith's fictions are not military SF akin to those of Heinlein.  Nor are they "hard" SF based on the science of the 1950s.  Neither are they space exploration stories or strict sociological stories referencing the then-present.  No, his stories were neither beast nor fowl and perhaps that is why Smith's fictions went out of print soon after his death and have never been praised as much as the authors listed above.  But there is something about them, something that might be hard to pin down at first, which makes his stories, when read as a whole, one of the more intriguing SF creations of the 20th century.  Let's start with one of the earliest stories, "Scanners Live in Vain," published originally in 1950:

She pulled the long gold-sheathed wire out of the pocket of her apron.  She let its field sphere fall to the carpeted floor.  Swiftly, dutifully, with the deft obedience of a Scanner's wife, she wound the Cranching Wire around his head, spirally around his neck and chest.  She avoided the instruments set in his chest.  She even avoided the radiating scars around the instruments, the stigmata of men who had gone Up and into the Out.  Mechanically he lifted a foot as she slipped the wire between his feet.  She drew the wire taut.  She snapped the small plug into the High-Burden control next to his Heart-Reader.  She helped him to sit down, arranging his hands for him, pushing his head back into the cup at the top of the chair.  She turned then, full-face toward him, so that he could reap her lips easily.
This quote, which is given in order to provide some description of the Scanners, is at first glance not elegant at all.  Smith's prose is stripped of all but the most functional of adjectives, plus there are elements such as "Cranching Wire" and "High-Burden control" that seem a bit technical and hard to imagine without further context.  But within even this descriptive paragraph there are some interesting elements.  What are these "instruments" that are set in the Scanner's chest?  What are the "radiating scars?"  Why is the Scanner's wife performing a duty that seems to be a humble, daily exercise akin to bathing an incapacitated loved one?  Below is one more short paragraph that provides a lot of understanding to what is transpiring:

Even with this luxury of senses, he scanned.  He took the flash-quick inventory which constituted his professional skill.  His eyes swept in the news of the instruments.  Nothing showed off scale, beyond the Nerve Compression hanging in the edge of Danger.  But he could not worry about the Nerve-box.  That always came through cranching.  You couldn't get under the wire without having it show on the Nerve-box.  Some day the box would go to Overload and drop back down to Dead.  That was the way a haberman ended.  But you couldn't have everything.  People who went to the Up-and-Out had to pay the price for Space.
There is a terrible tragedy implied in one becoming a Scanner.  Smith does not linger overmuch on scenes such as this, and in his latter stories, elements such as this that provide brief glimpses into a person's souls and to the motivations that drive such animae are presented in more indirect and yet even more powerful scenes, such as the ones found in "On the Gem Planet," where Smith introduces very powerful stories in a rather quaint fashion:

Consider the horse.  He climbed up through the crevasses of a cliff of gems; the force which drove him was the love of man.

Consider Mizzer, the resort planet, where the dictator Colonel Wedder reformed the culture so violently that whatever had been slovenly now became atrocious.

Consider Genevieve, so rich that she was the prisoner of her own wealth, so beautiful that she was the victim of her own beauty, so intelligent that she knew there was nothing, nothing to be done about her fate.

Consider Casher O'Neill, a wanderer among the planets, thirsting for justice and yet hoping in his innermost thoughts that "justice" was not just another word for revenge.

Consider Pontoppidan, that literal gem of a planet, where the people were too rich and busy to have good food, open air, or much fun.  All they had were diamonds, rubies, tourmalines, and emeralds.

Add these together and you have one of the strangest stories ever told from world to world.
Within this odd introduction, Smith alerts the readers not just to the wealth (yes, pun intended) of characterizations that shall be explored, but he also reminds readers of his past stories about how he has covered elements such as justice and how easily it could be perverted into revenge, or how love, ambition, and desire can imprison as well as free people.  This story contains more metaphors for the human condition than most of Smith's other stories, making it a personal favorite, but it is also quite direct about how our frailties can continue to haunt us long after we ourselves have, as Shakespeare put it, "shuffled off this mortal coil."

And that is the engine of Smith's stories involving the Rediscovery of Man.  After an unspecified future "dark age" where human weaknesses have led to chaos, destruction, and the enslavement of parts of the remaining humans, there is a rebirth of old cultures, old languages, and old traditions that contain not just the promise of something new, but also a warning that the old evils have not been eradicated.  These stories may not always pack a punch individually, but when viewed as a continuum where events or persons found in one story influence others, there are signs that Smith wove an incredibly deep and moving tapestry of human lives, dreams, failures, and evils in a future where the technology is but a trapping set around the central mystery of what it is to be human.

The Rediscovery of Man is certainly a "Masterwork" that is much more powerful than its modest publishing history might indicate.  Although most of the individual stories, when taken out of the context of the greater whole, do not reveal much grandeur or much in the way of stirring emotions, when viewed in the aggregate, these stories are powerful expressions of the various and sometimes conflicting elements of the human soul.  The Rediscovery of Man may not be fully representative of the types of fictions written in the 1950s Golden Age of American SF, as several of its elements presage the subsequent New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a work that contains much to appeal to readers living in the early 21st century.  For these reasons, The Rediscovery of Man is an enduring classic.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #25: Jonathan Carroll, Voice of Our Shadow

Fantasy is a very tricky word to define.  For some, "fantasy" may  be interpreted as being other places, other times, anything "other" than right here in a GPS-searchable world.  Secondary world creations, whether they be epic or more personal in scope, fall under this label for fantasy.  For others, "fantasy" may be an alienation of the senses, a vague, creeping belief that something is not "right" and that "odd" and "weird" things may be taking shape.  This definition, related to the newer horror category, is exemplified in works such as William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and Other Novels, already reviewed as part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series.

But there are other definitions of what constitutes "fantasy."  In some works, the "fantasy" is a trick of the mind, overlapped with the juxtaposition of the mundane, expected events with the unnatural, both "real" (in the mind of the characters, at least) and unreal alike.  Under this last category may fall works that are sometimes labeled as "magical realism," where a Buendia doing her laundry may be assumed into Heaven just as the Virgin Mary was reportedly to have done upon her death.  So too can the works of American writer Jonathan Carroll be placed here.

Voice of Our Shadow (1983) is Carroll's second novel (his first, The Land of Laughs (1980), also is part of the Fantasy Masterworks series).  It is perhaps the shortest of the books that appear in the Fantasy Masterworks list, clocking in at around 65,000 words and 189 pages.  However, despite the relative paucity of words, Voice of Our Shadow might be one of the more emotionally powerful works in the Fantasy Masterworks series.

The story begins with the narrator, Joe Lennox, recounting his life growing up in New York.  As Joe tells of his upbringing and of his older brother, Ross, it becomes apparent that certain things are not right in his life:

I remember all this because some time ago I woke up in the middle of the night after having had one of those remarkably clear dreams; the kind where everything you experience is in such cold, clear light that you feel out of place in the real world once you wake up.  Anyway, my dream took place in his old room, and when I came awake, I grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote down a list of all the things I'd seen.

If a boy's room is an out-of-focus picture of what he'll later turn out to be in life, Ross would have antique dealer?  An eccentric?  Something unforeseeable but very special, I think.  What I remember best was lying on his bed (whenever he'd permit me in the room - I had to knock before I entered) and letting my eyes run over his shelves and walls and things.  Feeling as if I were in some land or on a planet that was impossibly far from our house, from my life.  And when I'd seen everything for the hundredth time, I would look at Ross and be delighted that however foreign or strange or cruel, he was my brother and we shared a house, a name, our blood (p. 8)
Reading between the lines here, there is a sense that Joe is unhappy, that his dreams are haunting him, and that something about his older brother still troubles him after a span of a few decades.  This vague sense of discomfort and guilt is later revealed when Joe discusses his brother's death by accident and his own role in it.  However, this is not the central theme of the novel, or rather it's not central in the way one might expect.

Joe goes on to become a writer, making a living off of a story he pens about his brother and him, a story that is at odds with the actual occurrences.  Uneasy, Joe leaves his native New York and moves to Vienna, where he makes the acquaintance of a married couple, India and Paul Tate.  India is an artist and Paul is a magician of some renown.  The three become very close until India and Joe betray Paul's trust, leading afterward to Paul's death.

Up to this point, Carroll's story seems to be that which can be found in a typical realist novel.  But it is with Paul's death that India and Joe discover that the dead, especially the dead who are aware of their being betrayed in life by the living, do not necessarily rest easy.  It is in this second half of the novel that the story turns on a dime, suddenly becoming a terrifying tale of guilt, recriminations, and spooky fantasies of the mind and of apparent reality.  Readers familiar with Carroll's other novels will recognize this as being a staple of his writing, but here, this switching between the mundane and the fantastic occurs so abruptly that it can temporarily jolt the reader out of his/her connection with the unfolding story.

Carroll's prose for the most part is quiet and yet absorbing.  Joe is not the most trustworthy of narrators, prone to find other explanations for his actions than what the reader eventually will manage to piece together.  It is Joe's fantasies about himself in relation to both his dead older brother and to the now-dead Paul that give this tale a power beyond that of a spooky haunting.  Despite the abruptness of certain plot advancements, Carroll does manage to give the final plot twist a plausible and powerful conclusion, one that can alter how the reader views the work as a whole.

Despite liking this short novel, I would have to question why Voice of Our Shadow is included as a "Masterwork", when several of the novels that followed after this show Carroll continuing to develop the narrative approaches that he first began to refine in his first two novels.  Voice of Our Shadow is not as emotionally terrifying as his first, The Land of Laughs, nor does it contain the same quality of prose, pacing, and characterizations that are found in the novels that follow.  If anything, Voice of Our Shadow is a pleasant enough story that only manages to reveal glimpses of the talent that Carroll managed to reveal more fully in his later novels.  It is a minor work, albeit a minor work of an outstanding writer, and while it is well worth reading, it just is not as masterful of a work as are the works that succeeded it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #19: Riddle-Master, Patricia A. McKillip

In the 1970s fantasy as a genre emerged primarily as secondary-world, epic fantasies largely based on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, often embracing rich, poetic settings. In this context, Patricia A. McKillip wrote The Riddle-Master of Hed, the first book in the Riddle-Master trilogy. It was followed up with Heir of Sea and Fire and concluded with Harpist in the Wind – the full trilogy is reproduced in the Fantasy Masterworks edition and seems to go by the alernate titles of The Riddle-Master's Game or simply The Riddle-Master of Hed.

Riddle-Master tells the tale of Morgon of Hed, a former student of the College of Riddle-Masters, and the Prince and land-ruler of Hed. Morgon wins a centuries-old riddle contest with Pevan, the wraith of a long-dead king of another land, gaining a crown, learning of a betrothal and opening himself up to a destiny he had no prior knowledge of, one that he is reluctance to embrace. Morgon comes to learn powers buried within him as he seeks the distant High One to discover who he is, accompanied by the High One’s harpist, Deth, a man possibly even more mysterious than the High One.

The middle ‘book’ of the trilogy, Heir of Sea and Fire, shifts focus from Morgan to Raederle, the woman Morgan unwittingly becomes betrothed to upon winning Pevan’s riddle contest. Raederle’s experiences mirror Morgon’s in many ways as she searches for Morgon and struggles with her own in-born power. In Harpist in the Wind, the trilogy shifts back to Morgon, with Raederle at his side as they struggle to answer riddles about themselves, the High One, and his harpist.

Riddle-Master clearly shows the influence of Tolkien in form and style, yet distinguishes itself by not being as derivative as most 1970s Tolkienesque epic fantasies. The quest is internal rather than external in scope, answers are wrapped in riddles, and the secondary-world is relatively small and self-contained. As an early example of the modern form of an epic fantasy, Riddle-Master is actually quite fun. At times it feels absolutely predictable, but it surprises far more than perhaps it should. This is because many of the present tropes of epic fantasy simply hadn’t developed fully at the time McKillip wrote Riddle-Master. What feels like a standard trope evolves differently, if only because of the reader’s own preconceptions about tropes in epic fantasy. McKillip wasn’t subverting fantasy tropes – she was simply telling her story as she wanted and it’s only the evolution of the genre that has occurred since that makes it feel playfully subversive at times.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Riddle-Master is McKillip’s writing style. She writes with a poetic, dream-like prose perfectly applied to a book of riddles. The text is subtle, meanings are layered, the pace leisurely in spite of the distance it carries, with it all leaving a faint sense of times long past.

A man he had never seen before, neither trader nor sailor, stood beside him. He was quietly dressed; the fine cloth and color of his blue-black tunic, the heavy chain of linked, stamped squares of silver on his breast were bewildering. His face was lean, fine-boned, neither young nor old; his hair was a loose cap of silver.
“Morgon of Hed?”
“I am Deth, the High One’s harpist.”
While McKillip's writing is both beautiful and exceptional, it can be hard for the 21st Century mind to grasp. Like a dream, it doesn’t easily endure and I found myself unable to read Riddle-Master in large blocks. Also like a dream, the happenings of Riddle-Master tended to haunt my mind in a barely conscious way when I was not reading it, yet would easily fade away into something only barely remembered. I fear that many people will be unable to enjoy Riddle-Master for these reasons, while those that can embrace this style will be rewarded with a story with beauty residing in its telling.

Centering a full third of an epic fantasy trilogy on a female lead was much more significant in the 1970s than it is today. While I would hesitate to call Raederle a feminist character, she does break out of traditional roles, taking her fate into her own hands (even if it does still revolve around a man). It was probably a very bold move when originally published, in today’s context; it’s little more than a pleasant narrative shift.

In modern marketing speak Riddle-Master is often tagged as YA fiction. It is both easy to see why and somewhat surprising. Violence is muted, adult situations are chaste, language is clean, and the story is about relatively young adults (though not teenagers). However, the sometimes dense prose is often so subtle that it can become quite confusing. So, while Riddle-Master is decidedly PG-rated, the poetic, subtle style of its writing lends more to the mature mind, especially at a time of decreasing attention spans in the explosive, wired world of today.

What makes something a Fantasy Masterwork? Did the book challenge society in some way? Does it explore the human condition especially well? Did it originate some fundamental aspect of fantasy writing? Was it the first (or best) example of a new subgenre? Or was it simply a good book with easily obtainable publishing rights? I found myself asking these questions and more as I reflected upon my reading experience. Riddle-Master doesn’t re-invent genre and doesn’t blatantly challenge society. Riddle-Master is post-Tolkien, secondary-world epic fantasy that manages to be non-derivative. It’s a book of beautiful subtly and style, it’s dream-like and can be difficult to grasp, with the reward in the journey. It embraces an innate sense of past and dream, searches for itself, and lingers just beyond memory. Yes, it’s a Masterwork, and for the very reasons that it may fail to appeal to modern sensibilities.

RIDDLE-MASTER by Patricia A. McKillip was originally published as a trilogy beginning with THE RIDDLE-MASTER OF HED in 1976. HEIR OF SEA AND FIRE followed in 1977 and HARPIST IN THE WIND concluded the trilogy in 1979. The Fantasy Masterworks edition is titled RIDDLE-MASTER and is an omnibus containing the full trilogy in 640 pages, though the version reviewed here is an earlier omnibus edition.

Fantasy Masterworks #13: Fevre Dream, George R. R. Martin

Abner Marsh has lived his life on the river. "A big man, and not a patient one," he has worked his way up the chain of command, from hand to mate to captain. As of 1856, he was proprietor of the moderately successful Fevre River Packet Company, named after the river in his home town, and though grossly overweight and alone, Abner was as happy as such a man could hope to be. His dreams were of racing the fastest ship on the Mississippi, the glorious Eclipse, and beating her. But the year since has been hard. In July, the "Mary Clarke blew boiler and burned, up near to Dubuque, burned right to the water line with a hundred dead. And this winter - this was a terrible winter." An ice jam has destroyed four of the Company's steamboats; including the Elizabeth A., brand new at a cost of $200,000 and the apple of Abner's eye. It's been a run of bad luck rather than any fault of his command or management, but it's left the captain near to ruin. Near to ruin, and further than ever from the great liner Abner had hoped to challenge.

Enter Joshua York, an enigmatic benefactor who offers Abner a chance to turn things around. For part ownership of the Fevre River Packet Company and co-command of its most prestigious vessel, York is prepared to pay for the construction of a new ship - and the Fevre Dream, as the captain has a mind to call it, will be "the finest steamship ever to sail the Mississippi." All York asks is that neither Abner nor the crew challenge his behaviour, which, he explains, might seem "strange or arbitrary or capricious" at times. Curious conditions and no mistake, yet to Abner they seem a small price to pay for an opportunity long thought lost to outsteam the Eclipse.

A deal is struck. The Fevre Dream is built; Abner and York set a course for New Orleans and push off into the river, with high hopes and great expectations. Right about then, of course, everything goes wrong.

Fevre Dream is an early-80s vintage Masterwork, and it's a novel about a place and a time. A time "when the river swarmed and lived, when smoke and steam and whistles and fires were everywhere," a time George R. R. Martin evokes so masterfully you'd be forgiven for thinking he grew up on the banks of the muddy Mississippi a century and a half ago. Fevre Dream is a novel about people; about hope, friendship, trust and betrayal. At the arterial pivot-point of this place and this time is the story of Abner and York, men whom could hardly be less alike, yet find themselves bound together, for good or ill, each with his own impossible dream to realise.

Fevre Dream is also a novel about vampires. A fact which, sadly, is as like in this day and age to throw its readers off as it is to draw them further in. York and the unusual company he keeps don't call themselves vampires, of course, and they're not your run-of-the-mill fang-bangers in any case: surround them with mirrors, as on the main deck of the steamship they commandeer, and you will see their reflections; they don't immediately turn to dust in sunlight (though the UV will eventually cost them a dear price); many of them find garlic to be a fine addition to a meal. Martin posits that they're a race entire in and of themselves, rather than one derived of our own. They feed from us simply because they believe themselves higher up the food chain than mere humans; as Damon Julian so memorably observes, we are as cattle to them.

Fevre Dream is a historical novel, by all accounts. Its period and setting positively sing, Martin brings each out so beautifully. We are with the hands as they venture out to sound the treacherous river's depths; we are in the pilot room as dawn breaks to see the silt-laden Mississippi stretch out, orange-brown, into the heat-hazed distance ahead. Some nights, a thick fog descends upon the river, reducing visibility so near to zero that the Fevre Dream must dock till it passes. And so we see New Orleans, gaudy yet magnificent, the den of sin that is Natchez Under-the-Hill; we hold over in Bayou Sara, St Louis and Memphis to take on freight. Fevre Dream is an exhilarating whistle-stop journey through a period of history alive with possibility, potent with the promise of technology, innovation, progression and revolution. It is a fascinating study of a time and a people and a way of life, all lost to us.

In short, Fevre Dream is a masterwork. It meets the very definition, in fact: it is an outstanding work or art, a spare and superlative piece of fiction amongst a horde of has-beens and hopefuls who can only aspire to its effectiveness. Its only failing a somewhat rudderless calm before the storm that heralds its chilling climax, George R. R. Martin's third novel, near enough thirty years old as of this writing, well and truly deserves its place in the canon of great fantasy. Plotted with such precision as to feel inevitable, parsed by the most spare and elegant prose, driven by a striking cast of flawed yet relatable individuals - some tragic, some comic, some outright horrific - and heady with such atmosphere you can just about smell the river stink and taste York's alcohol and laudanum blood substitute, Fevre Dream is testament to a place, a time, a people... and to the enduring power of fantastic literature.