#2 – Dune Review – Frank Herbert

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Few books on this list have had a bigger cultural impact than Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece. Often cited as the best selling science fiction novel of all time (over 10 million copies sold), it is also usually in the discussion as possibly the best novel that science fiction has ever produced, period. Spawning countless sequels (only 5 of which were written by Herbert himself), prequels, movies, TV adaptations and even a video game, the Dune saga looms large in any discussion of the top science fiction franchises of all time.

Dune Summary

Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides and House Atreides as they take over control of the desert planet Arrakis from their hated rivals House Harkonnen. Despite its harsh climate, unfriendly native population and hostile wildlife (i.e. Killer Worms), Arrankis is also the only known source in the universe of the “spice” Melange – an addictive substance which has the ability to extend life and give greater awareness to the user – including the ability to fold space-time for interstellar travel. Suffice it to say, the Spice is the engine that powers the entire Empire, making Arrakis the most strategically important planet in the universe.

While Paul is a member of House Atreides, it is also revealed that he is the product of a centuries old breeding program organized by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a shadowy group whose goal is to produce a super human with prescience abilities – also known as the Kwisatz Haderach. As the novel progresses, Paul becomes more attuned to his growing powers and how to harness them for his own purposes. After an ambush by House Harkonnen deposes House Atreides and sends them scattering, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica are forced to take refuge with the planet’s native elements – the Fremen. During his time with the Fremen, Paul completes his transformation from fresh faced royal heir to the vengeful messiah Muad’Dib – bent on retaking Arrakis back from the Harkonnens and spreading Jihad throughout the universe.

Dune Review

While there are many reasons to appreciate Herbert’s brilliantly realized world (its philosophical meditations on war and power, its subtle environmental and ecological themes, its epic battles and strategic maneuvering), the thing that impressed me most was the sense that, although the novel often take place on an intimate, individual level (as with Paul’s almost constant inner dialogue and self reflective soul searching), there is still a sense that the events set in motion have consequences on a much larger scale. Whether it’s the generations worth of selective breeding and silent influence of the Bene Gesserit or Paul’s own visions of the Jihad he created sweeping out into the Universe unchecked for centuries, the larger than life nature of Dune’s mythology serves to elevate the stakes of what may seem at first to be petty squabbles between feuding families. Even Paul’s own personal metamorphoses is a clear narrative archetype – a dramatic retelling of the Hero’s Journey (or Monomyth) – and one that can be found in numerous stories throughout history.

While the original Dune is still untouchable, the sequels do an admirable job of continuing the story and adding new layers and characters to the mythology. So if you end up finding yourself becoming addicted to the spice-tinged intricacies of the Dune universe, you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of further adventures and interplanetary intrigue to help you get your fix.

Dune Quotes

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Dune Series: Dune | Dune Messiah | Children of Dune | God Emperor of Dune | Heretics of Dune | Chapterhouse: Dune

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September 29, 2010

#3 – Foundation Review – Isaac Asimov

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I have to admit, when I first read Foundation (probably sometime around age 15), I didn’t really understand much of what was going on. I remember reading it partly because it was supposed to be a “classic,” but mainly because it had a cool cover. The overall ideas and themes interested me, but the dense exposition, foreign settings and growing list of minor characters (whose names I had trouble pronouncing) were just a little too much for my impatient teenage mind to process. Maybe it was because it was one of the first real science fiction novels I’d read and I just wasn’t accustomed to the peculiarities of the genre. Either way, I’m glad that I gave it a second chance later in life.

The part of the book that intrigued me the most (both times I read it) was the concept of Psychohistory: a fictional branch of science that used elements of mathematics, history and sociology to help predict human behavior over long periods of time. While not quite true prescience, the idea that you could use statistical principles and human psychology to, essentially, look into the future was a fascinating idea. In the novel, the main character Hari Seldon is able to use psychohistory in order to predict the downfall of the current Galactic Empire – as well as a 30,000 year period of barbarism to follow. In order to shorten the time period between the fall of the Empire and the rise of a second empire, Seldon sets out to create a collection of the entirety of human knowledge (the Encyclopedia Galactica) – compiled and protected by an organization known as the Foundation.

Foundation Summary

As the first novel in the Foundation Trilogy (originally published as a collection of five short stories), the book recounts the founding and strengthening of the first Foundation amidst a skeptical empire and a location amidst
planets that were rapidly devolving into barbarism. The second novel, Foundation and Empire, introduces another threat to the Foundation: The Mule – a mutant conqueror whose unique ability to alter people’s emotional allegiances was not accounted for in Seldon’s predictions, and which ultimately leads to a confrontation with the Foundation. As its title suggests, the final book in the original trilogy, Second Foundation, recounts the discovery of a parallel Foundation at the opposite end of the universe – whose true purpose is eventually revealed.

Foundation Review

While it would be hard to call Foundation action-packed (most of the actual fighting and war takes place “off-screen”), there is just enough intrigue and suspense to keep the story humming along. But even though it has its entertaining elements, I would recommend this book to a friend as a novel of “Ideas.” Sometimes you’re just not ready to appreciate something like that at first (I wasn’t). But if you are, there are few better places to start than Asimov’s crowning achievement.

Foundation Quotes

“It is the invariable lesson to humanity that distance in time, and in space as well, lends focus. It is not recorded, incidentally, that the lesson has ever been permanently learned.”

“Any dogma, primarily based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”

The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation | Foundation and Empire | Second Foundation

Other Books in the Foundation Series:
Foundation’s Edge | Foundation and Earth | Prelude to Foundation | Forward the Foundation

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September 29, 2010

#76 – Ilium Review – Dan Simmons

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No other author that I know of is better at infusing Science Fiction with elements of classic literature and epic storytelling than Dan Simmons. Where other writers are content to work within the confines of the genre’s establish parameters, Simmons seems intent on showing us how speculative fiction is simply an updated vehicle for dealing with themes and conflicts that have occupied writers for centuries. Who else has the courage (and the writing chops) to let sentient robots and quantum teleportation exist side-by-side with discussions of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or a complete re-imagining of Homer’s Iliad – not to mention allusions to H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor? Even more so than Simmons’ breakthrough masterpiece Hyperion, Ilium uses one of the most famous texts in the English language as a framing device to explore issues of power, honor, and hubris. That these issues arise from the actions of near-god like beings thousands of years in the future is all part of the fun. Like your favorite English professor in college, Simmons is able to bring even the most uninspiring pieces of literature to life in a way that makes you appreciate both the power and significance of the original work and the feats of imaginative brilliance that it took to integrate it seamlessly into this new creation.

Ilium Summary: The plot of Ilium follows three distinct story lines, each with their own group of primary characters. The first story line (and you could argue the most central and important) takes place on a terraformed version of Mars thousands of years in the future and centers around the events of the Trojan war, which seem to be taking place in real-time under the supervision (and sometimes intervention) of supremely powerful creatures who have taken the form of Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.) Whether this is simply a recreation a Homer’s Iliad by a group of bored super-beings, some sort of virtual reality simulation, or the actual Trojan war manifested on Mars through some sort of quantum disturbance in time and space, Simmons doesn’t reveal for the majority of the novel. While it may seem frustrating at first to be left in the dark about whether the events that are happening are real or not, it actually provides a tantalizing hook that helps draw you into the narrative in unexpected ways.

While we may be unsure about the true identity of the seemingly all-powerful gods that are observing and influencing the legendary fight between the Greeks and the Trojans at the siege of Ilium from atop Olympus Mons (the largest volcanic mountain on Mars), we are at least given one character who we can identify with. Thomas Hockenberry, a portly 21st century Homeric scholar from Indiana, is somehow resurrected by the gods and asked to observe the events of the war to see how closely they are matching up to Homer’s recounting of the tale in the Iliad. Given a set of powerful tools from the gods, including the ability to morph into the body of anyone in the war and to teleport in and out of battles at will, Hockenberry and the other resurrected “scholics” have been observing the famous Greek and Trojan warriors as they each fulfill their part in the narrative. It is only when Hockenberry is given a secret assignment by the goddess Aphrodite and makes a series of fateful decisions that the war begins to veer from the path laid out in the Iliad.

The second story begins on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and involves a group of sentient robots (called Moravecs) that are planning a mission to investigate and hopefully terminate the increased amount of quantum activity that seems to be coming from Olympus Mons. As we’ve seen that the Gods on Mars have access to quantum teleportation, we can only assume that they are the cause of this increased activity. When the expedition’s spacecraft is destroyed by a mysterious robed figure riding a flying chariot above Mars, the two remaining Moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu, are forced to try and deliver a mysterious weapon to Olympus Mons on their own. As sentient robots, the Moravecs act more like humans than traditional robots. So much so that Mahnmut is an expert in Shakespeare while Orphu is something of a Proust scholar. Their debates about literature and the works of two of the most important writers in the English language provide a bit of levity and humor throughout their journey. This intertextuality also allows Simmons to parallel the events in the novel with the themes and ideas expressed in these classic works of literature.

The third and final thread takes us all the way back to Earth where a small group of “old-style” humans are kept docile and taken care of by a mysterious race of mechanoid nanny-type creatures known as voynix. Relegated to living in blissful ignorance and isolation, the humans live on the few unspoiled patches of land left on the planet and are allowed to live for 100 years before being, supposedly, taken to the Earth’s new equatorial rings to live with the mythical post-humans who left the planet after a series of natural and man-made disasters made it virtually uninhabitable. While most of the humans are content to live their simple lives (Simmons refers to them as being like the “Eloi” in H.G. Wells’ famous novel The Time Machine), a small group of inquisitive ones struggle to find answers and meaning in the series of events that have led to the majority of the planet being off-limits to them and their lives monitored and controlled by the mysterious voynix creatures.

Ilium Review: While I’ll admit that I had some trouble at first with the disjointed nature of the narrative and the lack of concrete who/what/when/where/why answers, it didn’t take me long before I got over my initial confusion and just started to enjoy the novel for what it was and what it was trying to do. Simmons has a history of posing profound questions and intriguing central mysteries without providing definitive answers, and this book is no different. And while he does reveal a good deal about the events that have brought about the current state of the Earth, the question of who or what the Gods are and why they are trying to recreate the Iliad (if that’s even what they’re doing) is left only partially answered. Since there is a sequel to the novel, Olympos, there’s a good chance that this mystery is eventually revealed, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up to find out sometime soon. But taken on its own, I still think that Ilium is an incredibly engaging and thought-provoking novel and one that doesn’t mind taking big risks in terms of structure and scope in the service of big ideas and literary transcendence. So, if you can handle a little enigmatic uncertainty, this book is well worth a read.

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#96 – City Review – Clifford Simak

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I came across Clifford Simak’s CITY unexpectedly while on my honeymoon in Greece. After browsing around one of the coolest book stores I’ve ever been to (Atlantis Books on the Greek Island of Oia), I stumbled on this paperback in the science fiction section and was immediately struck by the cover art. An evil looking robot holding a dog, while flanked by a menacing black tower seemed at the same time sinister, absurd, and almost comical. Judging by the cover of this book alone, I initially had a hard time believing that it was actually one of the top science fiction novels of all time. After finishing it by the pool in a day of feverish reading, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a lot further up on this list. The book manages to flawlessly create a cohesive overarching narrative through stories that could just as easily stand on their own.  For sheer scope of vision, imagination and audacity, it doesn’t get much better than this.

City Summary: With a structure and tone similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, CITY is made up of eight loosely connected stories that are told in the form of “Legends” by the narrator, who prefaces each tale with a bit of commentary and academic notes on the story to come – and who also happens to be an intelligent dog. These legends provide an episodic recounting of the twilight of mankind and the emergence of dogs as the dominant species on the planet. Speaking from some point in the far future, the narrator, in recounting these oral legends to the next generation of pups, makes it clear that, while the stories make mention of a creature called “Man” and a thing called a “City,” there is no proof that they actually existed. In fact, the narrator even mentions that most dog scholars who’ve studied these legends actually believe that idea of Man is simply a literary device used by the original authors to account for the existence of dog culture, much the same way that our human legends and origin stories mention gods and beings who no longer exist.

The first story shows mankind in the midst of a great sociological transformation. With the emergence of near instantaneous transportation options and advanced hydroponic farming methods, the need for humans to live in crowded cities (or “Huddling Places” as Simak describes them) becomes unnecessary, causing many people to move back to the uncrowded countrysides to live a pastoral life. After the initial set up, we are introduced to the Websters, a wealthy family living in a large mansion in the countryside with their faithful robot servant Jenkins. It is through them (and subsequent generations of Westers) that we begin to trace the history of mankind’s eventual obsolescence and the rise of the dogs. From renowned brain surgeon John Webster (whose bout with agoraphobia results in the loss of a potentially groundbreaking philosophical breakthrough for mankind) to John’s son (who develops an interstellar drive enabling man to travel outside of the galaxy) to Robert Webster (a master geneticist whose experiments on dogs provide the groundwork for what is to come), the Webster clan pops up throughout the subsequent stories – to the point where, in the future, the term “Webster” is used by the dogs to describe any Man.

City Review: At this point I don’t want to give away too much, as half of the wonder and excitement of the story relies on experiencing the subtle transformation on your own. I will say, however, that the fall of man is not due to any violence or deceit by the dogs – in fact, the dogs are forever loyal and obedient to their masters. Instead, what makes the story so tragic in the end is how mankind, in failing to achieve enlightenment and unable to truly connect with each other on a spiritual level, end up abandoning our universe (and in some cases the physical world altogether). It’s a counter-intuitive vision of the apocalypse – one in which mankind isn’t destroyed by a nuclear weapon or an invading alien species, but by their own sense of loneliness and isolation from each other. It’s a melancholy eulogy to a species that is constantly evolving and trying to improve their physical surroundings while never quite getting around to developing the spirituality and enlightenment necessary to truly be happy.

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#66 – The City and the Stars Review – Arthur C Clarke

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While Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, The City and the Stars, may not be as instantly memorable or critically celebrated as some of his later works, it does give us a tantalizing glimpse into the groundbreaking talent that he would eventually become. With its far future setting, intriguing mysteries and engaging main character, the book does an admirable job of portraying a world in which all of mankind’s needs are taken care of and an antipathy towards the exploration and discovery of new experiences has become almost pathologically ingrained in society. Originally written as a novella called Against the Fall of Night, Clarke decided to rewrite it entirely when it came time to produce a novel length version of the story, taking into account what he’d learned as a writer since its original publication. And although the narrative may drag a bit towards the end, the fascinating premise and Clarke’s deft ability to imagine a world in which humanity has seemingly reached its twilight years make this a still vital tale of one man’s attempt to break free of the isolationism and fear of the unknown that has gripped his race for millenia.

The City and the Stars Summary: Set a billion years in the future, the story begins in the last known city on Earth, Diaspar. Entirely enclosed from the outside world and run almost completely by a central computer that regulates every aspect of life, the city of Diaspar is populated by what is thought to be the entirety of the remnants of the human race. Having been cut off from the rest of the world for so long, no one can recall anyone ever leaving or entering the city. While legend has it that the city was built during a time in which malevolent invaders nearly destroyed the human race (but were content to make sure that they never left the planet again), the reality of the reason for their self-imprisonment is unclear. The city is so efficient at preserving civilization that it keeps a record of every human in the city in its memory banks and then revives them periodically to live out 1,000 year lifespans. The result is that every member of society has knowledge of the time spent during many of their previous lives. That is, except one.

Alvin is a “Unique” – different than all of the other residents of Diaspar in that he has no memory of any previous lives. Being the first truly unique consciousness that the central computer has created in years, he is also different in that he does not fear the outside world in the same way that his fellow citizens do. In fact, as he starts to reach adulthood, he actually gets the urge to find a way to leave the city and explore the outside world. Although his behavior is deemed strange by his friends and family, he finds a kindred soul in Khedron the Jester, a figure (we learn) who has been inserted into society every so often by the central computer in order to inject a little bit of uncertainty and chaos into an otherwise staid and stagnant system. With the help of Khedron, Alvin eventually discovers a way to leave the city via a dilapidated underground subway system that use to connect all of the cities of the world. Upon leaving the city, Alvin discovers a second city (or set of villages) surrounded by grasslands: The city of Lys. He soon learns that the residents of Lys have evolved to the point where they can communicate telepathically. And while they seem to live in relative peace and happiness, he is also shocked to learn that new members of Lys are born naturally, live normal life spans, and then die a true death.

The City and the Cars Review: While Clarke spends some time illuminating the differences between how these two human cities evolved and what that says about our society in general, he quickly changes gears to focus on the central mystery of the story – how Earth came to be a barren wasteland inhabited by two very different societies. Although Clarke loses some steam during this section as he tries to sort out the vast and complex history of humankind, the answers that are revealed are surprising and often profound.  For a novel that was written over 50 years ago, it holds up surprisingly well. And even if it may not be an outright classic when compared to such masterworks as Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it still merits inclusion among the greatest science fiction novels of all time by any author.

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#52 – The End of Eternity Review – Isaac Asimov

Time travel is an idea that has been examined by science fiction writers for almost as long as the genre has existed. Whether it’s being used to provide a shocking glimpse into the far future of humanity (as in H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine), as a convenient device to construct a non-linear narrative (as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), or as a clever mechanism for revenge and redemption (as in Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer), the peculiar scientific, philosophical, and practical questions that time travel raises have captivated millions of readers over the years – this one included. But for all of the time travel yarns I’ve read in my life, I can’t remember one as thrilling and unpredictable as Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. In general, I’ve always considered Asimov to be an interesting, thought-provoking, and imminently readable author. But nothing quite prepared me for how much I would enjoyed his unique take on time travel. After powering through the book in two days, my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer.

The End of Eternity Summary: The novel is set primarily in a mysterious netherworld known as Eternity, a realm that exists outside of time and provides the means in which to travel to almost any century imaginable. Eternity is used by a small group of humans (known as Eternals) who have been plucked out of various time periods and tasked with monitoring the course of human history and making changes to reality in order to prevent any major events that might threaten humanity. Using a complex organization of specialists, including Observers (whose job it is to provide detailed notes on the current situation in each century prior to a change), Computers (who are able to calculate the effects of those changes on future societies and individuals), and Technicians (who are in charge of actually performing the “Strategic Minimum Actions” necessary to bring about a reality change), the Eternals noble goal is to perform changes to the temporal world that will minimize human suffering in the long run. While these changes can be as minor as leaving a door open where before it was closed (as illustrated by the theory of The Butterfly Effect), the eventual effects of those changes can often be quite drastic (erasing innocent people from existence altogether).

While the idea of silent observers altering the course of history is a fascinating idea (one that one my favorite TV shows Fringe seems to have borrowed), what’s even more fascinating is Asimov’s description of the different centuries that the Eternals have access to and the difficulties that arise from living in many different eras. By traveling “upwhen” and “downwhen,” in time, the Eternals can travel to almost any century they want through the use of a temporal elevator known as a kettle (which, in a brilliant bit of hard science, is supposedly powered by the almost inexhaustible power of Nova Sol, our exploding sun, hundreds of thousands of centuries in the future).

The only eras they can’t go to are the Primitive era before Eternity was created (pre-24th century) and the “Hidden Centuries” (above the 100,000th) that are blocked by some unidentified force. Some centuries look much like our own. Others are “Energy-Centered” and bear no relation to our own. But no matter how far they travel (one character is from the 30,000th century), they notice that man is still basically the same throughout the centuries. It’s as if human evolution stopped after Eternity came into being. Another thing they notice is that, while many centuries have developed space travel, all of them have eventually given it up after finding the universe a crowded, hostile place.

The story’s protagonist is Andrew Harlan, a technician who becomes involved with a non-Eternal woman (also known as a Timer) named Noÿs Lambent. After finding out that a change in her reality will end up causing her to have never existed, Harlan attempts to protect her by hiding her away in one of the furthest centuries of Eternity while he tries to make his case to save her. In the process of trying to save Noÿs, Harlan begins to realize that he is actually part of a much larger and more complicated plot that has to do with the very existence of Eternity and the Eternals efforts to preserve it.

 The End of Eternity Review: What really sets this book apart in my mind is the fact that it kept me guessing up until the very last page. There are so many tantalizing questions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Will Harlan be able to save Noÿs and live happily ever after? Who is Noÿs anyways? Who is the real creator of Eternity? What role is Eternity playing in stunting the evolution of humanity? What does that have to do with space travel? Who or what is keeping the Eternals from reaching the “Hidden Centuries”? While Asimov’s deft explanation of the various paradoxes that arise is fascinating and masterful, his skills at misdirection and subtle foreshadowing are what make this book so great and lead to such a satisfying conclusion. Maybe one day I’ll be able to travel back in time to before I read this book so I can read it all over again.

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#48 – A Canticle for Leibowitz Review – Walter M. Miller

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Science Fiction has always had a tenuous relationship with religion and religious themes in general. Most Sci-Fi books are set in technologically advanced societies and civilizations that have outgrown the need for religion or at least seen it take a back seat to the “Church of Science.” Those that do feature some sort of religious element, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Hyperion, often present it as either a fraud or an agent of repression and conquest. While speculative fiction often deals with issues of spirituality and the potential for human transcendence, it usually comes in the form of contact with a superior alien intelligence or power (à la 2001 or Childhood’s End) rather than the work of a formal religious order such as the Catholic Church. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is the rare exception to this rule. In Miller’s masterpiece, the Church is the preserver of knowledge, technology and learning rather than the suppressor of it. In a world that has grown violently suspicious of anything even resembling technology or intellectualism, the members of the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz” are the ones struggling to preserve the knowledge of mankind amidst widespread cultural regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary: Beginning six centuries after our current civilization is decimated by a nuclear war (referred to as the “Flame Deluge”), the book is told in three parts, each separated by about 600 years. In the first section (“Fiat Homo” – Let There Be Man) we learn of the “Simplification,” a violent backlash against the culture of advanced technology that brought about the nuclear war. During the years immediately following the war, mobs of angry survivors burn books and kill anyone who can read or possesses any practical knowledge. In order to preserve the last remnants of human knowledge and learning, an electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz founds a monastic order in the Southwest United States that aims to hide, smuggle and reproduce these forbidden texts so that they can be used when mankind is ready to accept them again. The preservation of the sacred memorabilia and writings is continued by the order long after Leibowitz is martyred, beatified and eventually sainted. In the 26th century, a monk named Brother Francis Gerard stumbles across new relics in the desert which are rumored to be from Leibowitz himself. The relics, including a withered shopping list and the blueprints for mechanical and electrical devices, are used to help make the case for Sainthood for Leibowitz.

The section section (“Fiat Lux” – Let There Be Light) continues 600 years into the future in which the world is slowly starting to come out of the dark ages and into a Renaissance of learning and technological discovery. The Albertian Monks of the order of Saint Leibowitz are still at the center of the story, having used the preserved memorabilia and relics to start developing simple electrical devices and other basic technologies. While the Monks try to decipher and analyze the remaining artifacts, we also learn about the rise of civilized city-states such as Laredo, Texarkana and Denver and the struggle for power and security in the newly burgeoning world. The third section (“Fiat Voluntas Tua” – Let Thy Will Be Done) moves ahead another 600 years to a world in which mankind is even more technologically advanced than our own – with nuclear energy, weapons of destruction, and even starships and colonies among the outer planets. A conflict has been brewing between the two world superpowers and is in danger of turning into a full scale nuclear conflict. In preparation for this eventuality, the Church begins to make contingency plans for the evacuation of their members and the holy memorabilia and information that they still protect. The crumbling of their world around them as they escape from the dying planet is a sadly fitting coda to the story of civilization and the cyclical nature of human technological advancement and regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Review: The idea that human civilization can be seen in terms of cycles of enlightened progression and catastrophic regression is a powerful theme in this book. Scholars more observant that I am have noted that the three parts of the novel also correspond roughly to the three stages in the history of Western civilization – beginning with the Fall of Rome and concluding with our current age of technological wonders and dangerous scientific discoveries. The fact that Miller is able to weave these heady themes into a tale that is both intriguing and readable is a testament to his considerable skill as both a writer and a thinker. While it’s sad to think that this was the only novel that he published during his lifetime, it helps to know that at least it was one of the most cherished and widely studied books in all of Science Fiction. No matter what your views are regarding the Church or the role of religion in general, you’re sure to find something to fascinate you and make you think in this book. As we as a civilization try to learn from our previous mistakes in the hopes of breaking the ongoing cycle of progress and self-destruction, it helps to have reminders like this of where we are and how the choices we make today will effect the future. The great part about Science Fiction, in my mind, is how it can allow us to learn from the future as well as the past – especially since the two are so often intertwined.

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August 20, 2010

#45 – Time Enough for Love Review – Robert Heinlein

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Lazarus Long (aka Woodrow Wilson Smith) has to be one of the most fascinating characters ever to come out of the science fiction genre. In Heinlein’s hands, Lazarus is the ultimate rugged individualist; a man so full of life that he becomes witness to over 2,000 years of human history, always moving from one planet/marriage/occupation/conflict to another in search of adventure and new experiences. Along the way we are treated to a series of tales that recount significant events or time periods in Lazarus’ life – all in the service of supposedly putting together an exhaustive biography of the “oldest living human being.” And while this framing device may be a convenient way for Heinlein to jump back and forth between different time periods and settings, they also serve to weave together a picture of a man who has literally done it all, seen it all, and lived to tell about it. A lot of sci-fi scholars consider Time Enough for Love to be Heinlein’s crowning achievement; a perfect distillation of his personal philosophy and a nuanced exploration of themes and topics that he’d been playing around with for years. More than that, though, it’s a brilliant yarn that makes for a great read – which is also one of Heinlein’s hallmarks.

Time Enough for Love Summary: In order to understand Lazarus’ extended lifespan, we need to take a look at an organization called the Howard Families (a group that pops up in a number of different Heinlein books, including their original appearance in Methuselah’s Children). Started by Ira Howard in the 19th century, members of the family are chosen for their above average longevity. By using a selective breeding program (not unlike the Bene Gesserit of Dune), the Howard Families aim is to help extend human lifespans – a goal that has been achieved due to thousands of years of careful genetic oversight. Add to that a method of physical and mental rejuvenation that has been perfected through scientific methods and you have the recipe for almost unlimited life. When we first meet Lazarus, he is officially the oldest human being alive, having lived over 2,000 years through a combination of good genes and regular rejuvenation. But while this may seem wonderful, by the time we are introduced to Lazarus he has grown weary of life and has decided it is finally time to die.

The framing device that I mentioned comes in the form of a reverse Arabian Nights type deal that he makes with one of his descendants, Ira Weatheral -now the Pro Tempore of the Howard Families. After being rescued from the flophouse on Secundus where he has gone to die peacefully, Lazarus agrees to postpone his imminent departure while recounting various portions of his life that have gone unrecorded up to this point. As the oldest living human, Lazarus is something of a celebrity and has already had a good part of his life detailed in numerous books (how many of these accounts are real or fictional is unknown). However, having lived for almost two millennia, there are thousands of stories still left to tell.

The tales that follow take us across the galaxy to various moments and periods in Lazarus’ life, from 20th century America to the colonization of new planets and systems. I won’t get into the specifics of each of his tall tales – as that would spoil the surprise and fun. I’ll just say that each of the stories, as well as excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long that are sprinkled throughout the book, help to reveal a little bit more about the unique worldview and indomitable spirit of Lazarus. We start to put together a picture of a man who is fiercely independent and loyal, yet always restless and ready for a new adventure. He is tender and protective of the women in his life, yet who has no qualms about bedding down with women (some of them his own descendants) thousands of years his junior. While future society has developed advanced luxuries and scientific breakthroughs, he is content to help a fledgling community colonize a new planet in dusty pioneer style. For Lazarus, it’s not the outcome but the journey that matters. Always moving, always having new experiences. He also finds, as the title suggests, Love in the unlikeliest of places.

Time Enough for Love Review: While some people have expressed discomfort at some of the topics in the novel, including frank discussions of free love and incest, my opinion is that you really have to look at them in the context of the novel. For someone who has lived as long as Lazarus has and has fathered so many children (who have in turned fathered many more), it’s hard for him to find someone who isn’t related to him. And as his unique set of genes makes him a desirable mate for almost every female in the galaxy, he is constantly getting propositioned to “contribute” his genes. In addition, Heinlein also includes a thorough scientific explanation of the genetic issues that come in to play when evaluating the chance of defects in the offspring of two people. To Lazarus, the taboo against incest is suspect because it is a moral one rather than a scientific one. If the genetic makeup of the two people can be determined to have a low chance of defects (and it can be determined at least in this novel), than there is nothing inherently wrong with it. I may not agree with it completely, but it’s a unique perspective to say the least.

In the end, the thing that makes this book such a great read is that Lazarus is such a great storyteller. As the reader, it’s like curling up next to a roaring fire and listening to your grandfather tell stories. The only difference is that these stories happen to span 2,000 years and take place on various planets throughout the galaxy.  So if you’re in need of a good yarn or two and are ok with some unorthodox views on love and life, than this book may be just what you’re looking for.

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#33 – Lord of Light Review – Roger Zelazny

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I wanted to like this book, I really did. Check out that sweet cover of the glowing florescent Buddha! Science Fiction mixed with Hindu mythology and Buddhist mysticism? Sign me up. A world where humans use their advanced technological prowess to act like gods? Sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, what I thought would be a rousing philosophically tinged science fiction adventure story actually turned out to be a intentionally vague, highly confusing mess of Eastern religious platitudes, cardboard characters (given the names of Hindu gods), bad puns and yawn-inducing confrontations between good and evil. The book makes large leaps in time and setting without much warning, characters change names (and allegiances) on a number of occasions, and the narrative is hard to follow from one chapter to the next. Even the basic premise (that human refugees have used technology to make themselves god-like and all-powerful) is not fully explained until nearly half-way through the book – just long enough for me to be thoroughly confused and frustrated.

Lord of Light Summary: The story centers around a character named Mahasamatman (or Sam for short), the de facto leader of a rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet who have kept the masses oppressed under a rigid caste system and deprived them of the advanced technology that has allowed them to become so powerful. It isn’t until a good 100 pages into the book that it is revealed that these deities aren’t actually gods, but merely humans who have used their advanced technical and medical knowledge to become immortal. As a crew of colonists from a devastated Earth, they landed on this unknown planet and were forced to develop superhuman powers for themselves in order to survive. They eventually tamed the native inhabitants of the planet (referring to them as “Demons”) and have kept most of their own descendants in a state of arrested progress, fearing that any breakthroughs in technology may weaken their position. To complete the illusion of god-like importance, they even build themselves a fortress called the Celestial City as a stand-in for Heaven. With names like Yama the “God of Death” and Kali the “God of Destruction,” the colonists co-opt the Hindu mythological tradition in order to complete their metaphorical transformation from humans into gods. Add to that the ability to grant “Reincarnation” only to those who they deem worthy and you have the basis for total control.

Although Sam was one of the first colonists along with the other “Gods” and received many of the same benefits and powers that they did, he disagreed with them when it came to governing the populace of the planet. His view that the fruits of their technology should be shared with everyone rather than kept to the small circle of “Gods” was considered a threat to their power, causing him to be sent into exile (which is where he is returning from when the book opens). The rest of the book details his struggles to ferment rebellion against “Heaven” and free the population from oppression. The main way that he goes about instigating revolution is by the simple introduction of a competing belief system, Buddhism. That, along with his ability to control the pure-energy beings (demons) that were the planet’s original inhabitants, allow him to wage a fierce battle against the Gods.

Lord of the Light Review: While the story may sound interesting when you lay it out clearly like that, the actual telling of the tale is another story. I’m all for unconventional narratives and enigmatic storytelling, but when those things get in the way of a basic understanding of what is happening, when it is happening and to whom, that’s when you lose me. Now that I have a better grasp of what the book is about, I’m sure that a second reading would be much more rewarding. Unfortunately, there are too many better books out there that deserve a first reading to make me justify spending the time to give it a second chance. Maybe now that I’ve given you a basic outline of the plot you’ll enjoy it more than I did, who knows.

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August 26, 2010

#21 – The Forever War Review – Joe Haldeman

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Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a worthy counterpoint to the military Science Fiction of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But while both deal with the logistical challenges and emotional effects of fighting a war in outer space against an alien species, the underlying themes and sentiments of the novels couldn’t be further apart.

Where Heinlein’s future soldiers are all volunteers who see the value in self-sacrifice and service in the name of protecting humanity, Haldeman’s hero is a reluctant conscript who muses on the absurdity and inhumanity of fighting an interstellar war over the course of a thousand years, and who only rises in rank as a result of being the oldest serving soldier.

For me, The Forever War paints a more moving portrait of war and its effects on the individuals involved in fighting it. Maybe it’s just my lefty politics or my own personal beliefs regarding the absurdity of war in general, but I think there’s more to it than that. Besides its commentary on the nature of war, the book also poses a very interesting practical question about the nature of a war fought across light-years: Because of the time-dilation involved in faster than light travel, how do you coordinate your strategy when years pass between each battle (and how do soldiers readjust to a world that has changed immeasurably since they first left)?

The Forever War Summary

The protagonist is William Mandella, a student who is drafted into an elite military task force without his consent and shipped off to war against the Taurans. After a grueling training period, Mandella is involved in a resounding victory against an enemy base. However, due to time dilation, decades have passed when they finally return home to Earth (even though they’ve only been out less than a year in their time).

Besides the culture shock of returning to a completely different world, the Military is also dealing with the fact that the Taurans have had that much more time to develop more sophisticated weaponry and technology, leaving them at a distinct advantage. After surviving four more years of battle, Mandella officially becomes the oldest soldier in the war (with hundreds of years of objective service). By the time he and his companion Marygay return to Earth a final time, society has become nearly unrecognizable. With nothing left to tie him to Earth, he and Marygay decide instead to re-enlist.

The Forever War Review

Besides the realistic depictions of combat on other planets and the mind-bending questions that are posed about relativity and assimilation, the overarching theme of the novel, in my opinion, is the absurdity of war. From the futile nature of military strategy in a war in which lifetimes pass between each battle and the notion of soldiers fighting for the safety of a world that they don’t even recognize anymore to the final devastating revelation about the reason for war in the first place, Haldeman seems to be making a profound point about the ultimate futility of war and the ways in which war is perpetuated long after the reasons for fighting have been eliminated.

While it could be considered by some to be an Anti-War novel, it is certainly not blatant or preachy in its method or message. Haldeman was influenced by his own experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the parallels between that conflict and the one depicted in The Forever War. Just as soldiers returning from Vietnam experienced profound alienation after returning home from war, the soldiers of The Forever War return to an Earth in which they literally don’t even speak the language.

While some have tried to portray the book as a direct response to Starship Troopers, Haldeman has denied it profusely and said that Heinlein’s work helped inform his own. Regardless of its overt intentions, I did feel that it provided a more soulful, personal and moving picture of the nature of war that is universal, regardless of whether the war is being fought with tanks and machine guns or spaceships and lasers. Highly recommended.

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September 10, 2010