Tag Archives: science fiction

“This Monstrous Thing” by Mackenzi Lee

This book (signed by the author, no less) was given to me as a cast off. It had been received as a door prize… Talk about low expectations! I was pleasantly surprised. It kept me entertained.

“This Monstrous Thing” falls into two categories where I seldom read – fan fiction and (so help me) “steampunk”!

I get the point of fan fiction. If you enjoy and deeply admire a book, you may want to extend, re-tell or enlarge upon it. A friend of mine created his own version of Homer’s Illiad. It was good. Lee builds on Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley. Often described as the first work of science fiction, Frankenstein is a tale worth careful consideration. What does it mean to be human? What do we, as citizens and family members, own to one another? When does science overreach itself?

I don’t know ANYTHING about steampunk! Falling back on my usual source (Wikipedia), I see that it is a “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy” with 19th century underpinnings. Amazon will sell you steampunk costumes as well as books. Mackenzi Lee asserts (in her Author’s Note) that steampunk must invoke an altered past. The alteration she offers is the use of clockwork (gears, springs, etc.) to replace human limbs and organs in seriously injured people. It makes for a good story!

Since this falls in the category of Young Adult fiction, one can ask what lesson it teaches. I would sum it up as follows: if you harm a loved one, it makes sense to go to great lengths to make things right.

Why do I ask that question about YA fiction? Maybe because I question the existence of the YA category. Adolescents can and do read REAL books! Some YA fiction is strained and didactic. Some has broader appeal. “This Monstrous Thing” has enough narrative energy to transcend the YA fiction label.

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.

“In the Balance (World War, Book One)” by Harry Turtledove

Alternative historical fiction! A new genre to explore! And what a great idea! After all, who can resist speculating on “What if the South had won the Civil War?” So I downloaded this highly recommended book. The premise is extreme – what if space aliens had invaded Earth towards the end of World War II?

I think this would have worked better without the space aliens (any universal threat would do, like an epidemic), but they allowed for an interesting line of argument, namely that a reader of science fiction might have an advantage when communicating with bug eyed monsters. Turtledove’s monsters are rather like lizards. The point, I think, is that reading sci-fi makes you mentally flexible. I agree, as long as it’s not your only reading matter.

Despite this interesting starting point, I found the book to be plodding. The characters were interesting but their dilemmas were rather predictable.

Turtledove made one joke he didn’t intend. The aliens come from a hot, dry planet, and they are headed for a military denouement with American forces in Illinois in mid-winter. Yes, winter is coming! Let’s hear it for Game Of Thrones.

I enjoyed another book series that posited a different path for WW II. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels take place in England, but after Nazi occupation during WW II. The occupation disrupted the country so extensively that Wales separated and became an independent nation. Tensions remained. This is not the theme of the books (which deal with the manipulation of time and the tribulations of heroine Thursday Next), but it provides an interesting subtext. (I think Fforde is classified as a writer of post modernist fantasy. I like him better than the other “postmodernists” I have encountered.)

I’ll read more by Harry Turtledove if I’m faced with truly challenging boredom (say a 30 hour train ride), but for now, I’m moving on to other authors.

“The Martian: A Novel” by Andy Weir

This breezy, fast paced tale qualifies as “science fiction with the emphasis on science”. Andy Weir obviously had fun writing it. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is a cheerful wise guy. Finding himself abandoned on Mars due to a series of improbable events, he manages to stay alive, presenting NASA with a terrible problem. Can they rescue him? First they have to establish communication. The next problem is food. Watney starts to grow potatoes in the “habitat” intended to shelter the aborted scientific mission. I won’t give you more details, because the entertainment value of this book IS the details. This is a great book for when you need distraction. I enjoyed it while traveling, and look forward to whatever else Weir has up his sleeve.

Short stories?! “Space Dreadnoughts” edited by David Drake

I don’t usually read short stories. It’s too disappointing to like a character or situation and be cut short, when further development has so much appeal.

I also read very little science fiction, and suffer from the feeling that I’m just not finding the right science fiction. In my 18 months or so of blogging, I’ve read and discussed maybe five works of sci fi.

How did I even get this book? I think one of my sons picked it up at a used bookstore, or it may have been in the spare bedroom all along.

So… why did I dive into Space Dreadnoughts, edited by David Drake (1990) with so much enthusiasm? It’s a collection of stories about battles in space. Original dates of publication range from 1940 to 1977. There’s one story each from Issac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, both now deceased. The other authors are unfamiliar to me.

These stories have a certain anachronistic charm. Conquering space with a slide rule! They also deal as much with human nature as with technology. And that’s what appeals to me

The only familiar story was “Superiority” by Arthur C Clarke. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangerous appeal of going overboard for new technology. It should be required reading for all students of computer science!

I checked Amazon out of curiosity. Yes, you can buy a copy of Space Dreadnoughts, new or used, but it is not available for the Kindle.

Read and enjoy!