#78 – Have Space Suit, Will Travel Review – Robert Heinlein

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A lot of science fiction novels have a tendency to get bogged down in weighty themes, big ideas and serious, brooding characters – which is why the occasional book that throws a little humor and wit into the mix can be a welcome respite. Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel is one of those books. As both a fast paced swash-buckling adventure tale across the farthest reaches of the galaxy and as a wry, humorous parable about a teenage boy who learns how to realize his dreams, the book takes off at a frenzied pace and doesn’t let up. Written during his “Juveniles” period, in which he published books aimed mainly at teenage boys, the book crackles to life with an energy that is infectious to readers of any age. Heinlein’s writing is sharp, smart and efficient (as well as funny) and manages to even make the mechanical intricacies and practical necessities of spacesuit design seem interesting. If you’re looking for some light Sci-Fi reading and a change of pace from your ordinary space operas, you can’t go wrong with this book.

Summary: The hero of the story is a teenage boy named Kip Russell. Scientifically inclined and obsessed with finding a way to travel to the moon, Kip enters a jingle contest for the Skyway Soap company in which first prize is an all expenses paid trip to the moon. Although he fails to win the grand prize, Kip perks up when his second place prize is delivered to his house: a real life spacesuit. Kip spends the summer fixing up the old space suit to the point where it’s actually in working condition, even though he still has no way to get where he wants to go – all the while planning and scheming on how he is going to make enough money to cover the tuition for his first semester of college. Kip starts to think that his dreams may have to be put on hold for a long time, until one eventful afternoon changes everything. Trying on his fully functional suit in his backyard one last time before selling it to help pay for school, Kip picks up a Mayday signal from someone on his suit’s radio. To his amazement, two flying saucers land near him and, next thing he knows, he’s captured and taken to the moon where he is held captive by a group of alien uglies that look like they have worms growing out of their faces.

Luckily he’s not alone. Joining him in captivity is a young girl named PeeWee (the one who sent the original radio message). She explains to him that they’re being held by a race of “Wormfaces” who we eventually learn are plotting to take over the earth for their own nefarious purposes. Also in captivity is a being known as the “Mother Thing,” a kindly, telepathic creature who PeeWee informs Kip is also sort of like a policeman for the galaxy (obviously trying to stop the Wormfaces). After a series of heroic escapes in which Kip uses his intelligence and ingenuity to save the day, including one across the moon’s surface in which we learn a lot about the workings (and limitations) of a spacesuit, the trio are eventually saved by the Mother Thing’s people and taken to their home planet: Vega 5. There they are made witnesses of and participants in the trial of the Wormfaces in what seems to be a sort of galactic court. Unexpectedly, however, the Wormfaces aren’t the only ones put on trial. Although they are considered heroes for helping stop the Wormfaces and saving the Mother Thing, they are made to stand trial for the entire human race -a race that the court has decided may some day pose a threat to peace in the galaxy (due to our penchant for explosive weapons and territorial aggression). While I won’t give away the ending, the question of whether the story written for teenage boys has a happy ending is probably not too hard to figure out.

Review: Even if the story seems a little childish and unsophisticated compared to some of the muli-dimensional, multi-character epics of science fiction, don’t let that fool you. What elevates this book above the majority of fiction written for the teen age group is that Heinlein never talks down to the reader, and that is exactly why this is a book that would have been just as entertaining to my 13 year old self as it was to my 32 year old mind. Sure, it may not be a mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, otherworldly tour-de-force. But sometimes that not what you’re looking for in a book. If you’re looking for a quick, absorbing and fast-paced read while your sitting by the pool this summer (or gazing up at the stars), you couldn’t do a lot worse than this one. And if you’re of the type of intelligent, ambitious and searching souls as young Kip, you’ll find even more stuff in this book to relate to and dream about.

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January 7, 2010

#51 – The Diamond Age Summary – Neal Stephenson

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While it’s not as groundbreaking or as instantly gripping as his breakthrough novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is nevertheless a fascinating tale that melds a tender coming-of-age story to a future in which nanotechnology has altered virtually every aspect of society.

In many ways, The Diamond Age is a much more accessible book than Snow Crash. While the speculative aspects are no less astounding and inventive, they require less technical exposition and seem to have a more solid grounding in the real world (as opposed to the virtual reality of the Metaverse). In addition, the novel has a more traditional protagonist whose struggle to learn and thrive as a member of a lower class tribe (or “Phyle”) makes her almost immediately sympathetic. Throw in some subtle examinations of culture, class structure, ethnicity and education (as well as some nifty “Nano” advancements) and you have a masterful novel that careens effortlessly between being a whimsical adventure tale and a satirical take on cultural and moral relativism.

The Diamond Age Summary

The story centers around a young girl named Nell, a lower class “Thete” being raised by her single mother and protective older brother in the slums of the “Leased Territories” (a floating landmass off the coast of Asia controlled by the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle).

By a twist of fate, Nell comes into possession of an interactive book called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – a book which turns out to have been intended for the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. Intended to teach its owner the skills necessary to become a productive and fully realized member of “Neo-Victiorian” society, the book uses lessons and stories to help guide the reader on their journey to adulthood.

Because the book is able to respond directly to Nell’s life and environment, she becomes the heroine in the stories and the lessons are tailored specifically to her changing needs and requirements. She becomes immersed in the fantasy world of the Primer and undertakes a number of symbolic journeys and adventures that serve as life lessons towards her final goal of self-realization.

But Nell is not the only little girl who receives a copy of the primer. The book’s inventor, a nano-engineer named John Percival Hackworth, was supposed to produce just one copy of the primer for the granddaughter of a wealthy lord. In addition to the copy that falls into Nell’s hand, Hackworth also secretly produces a copy for his daughter Fiona – a crime that causes his eventual social downfall and exile from the New Atlantis phyle.

With three different copies of the Primer in the hands of girls from three different cultural backgrounds, Stephenson is able to look the interaction of culture, society and education and how they each play a role in shaping the attitudes and core beliefs of each individual. What is considered a desirable trait in one culture can be seen as a liability or hindrance to success in another. Since the book is set in a world in which cultural affiliations are more important than political ones, the desire to train children in the culture of their phyle is of utmost importance.

The Diamond Age Review

As is Stephenson’s style, there are also numerous subplots that surround the main action. Some of them have to do with the nanotechnology advances that populate this world (such as the Matter Compilers that are able to synthesize food but are controlled by the Neo-Victorians).

Another has to do with the way in which Nell interacts with a Mother-like character in the Primer (a role that is actually being remotely played by an actor named Miranda who comes to care for Nell and think of her as a daughter). And an even more bizarre sub-plot involves a group (or hivemind) that is able to connect subconsciously through drumming. While these digressions are interesting for a while, they unfortunately take the focus off of the more compelling main story.

To me, Stephenson seems like someone with such an abundance of ideas that he often tries to stuff too many of them into each novel. I would have liked a bit more of Nell and a little less of the random plot threads and diversions from the main storyline. But hey, with so much great stuff in this book it’s hard to complain about a few half baked ideas making their way in as well. Overall, The Diamond Age is well worth reading.

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August 17, 2010

#47 – Red Mars Summary – Kim Stanley Robinson

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is one of the few hard science fiction novels that spends as much time delving into the inner lives of its main characters as it does explaining the scientific underpinnings of the theoretical technology and advancements that they are surrounded by. Where other hard sci-fi novels are content to let the characters take a back seat to the scientific details, Red Mars treats it characters like real flesh and blood human beings. Passionate, driven, jealous, vengeful, conflicted. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people. People who have sacrificed everything to make the trip to Mars and who are now confronted with the daunting task of making it their new home. And while Robinson demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and conditions of the red planet (as well as a plausible recipe for how humans might alter the landscape to be more Earth-like), he never loses sight of the human drama at the center of this sweeping story of love, loss, conflict, discovery and rebirth.

Red Mars Summary: Beginning in the year 2026, the action begins aboard the spaceship Ares on mankind’s first colonial expedition to Mars. The crew is made up of 100 scientists (mostly Russians and Americans) of varying disciplines, each chosen for their specific expertise in one of the many subject areas that will be necessary for setting up and establishing a permanent human colony on the planet. There is the public hero John Boone, the first human to land on Mars, returning for another trip. Frank Chalmers, the fiercely cynical and driven leader of the American team. Maya Toitovna, the beautiful and beguiling head of the Russian contingent, who becomes involved in a love triangle with John and Frank. Arkady Bogdanov, the political troublemaker who eventually helps ferment a revolution on Mars. Sax Russell, the brilliant physicist whose single-minded pursuit of terraforming puts him at odds with those who want to see Mars left as it is. Ann Clayborne, a geologist who comes to believe that Mars should be left alone and kept in its original state. And Hiroko Ai, the mysterious agricultural expert who forms a hidden colony in order to start her own group.

During the initial stages of colonization, the arguments for and against terraforming begin to coalesce into two distinct camps: The Greens (led by Sax) who believe that changing the atmosphere and ecology of Mars to support human life is inevitable and necessary. And The Reds (led by Ann) who feel that humans shouldn’t have the right to mess with the ecosystem of Mars and that it should be left in a pristine state. With the weight of Eath’s government (and the powerful transnational corporations) behind them, the Greens eventually win out and begin their terraforming efforts. Giant space mirrors, nuclear reactors and large scale heating vents are just a few of the tactics that Sax’s team uses in order to try to raise the raise the temperature of the planet and begin the process of creating a breathable atmosphere. Eventually, however, incidents of sabotage and destruction begin to occur – presumably the work of underground “Red” factions that have not given up trying to protect Mars. Aided by a new influx of immigrants oppressed by the transnationals into working long hours mining for minerals in dismal living conditions, a new revolution is born that will come to envelop the red planet in chaos and upheaval.

Red Mars Review: There is a haunting quality to Robinson’s writing that perfectly mirrors the mystery and scope of the Martian environment – as well as the inner lives of many of the main characters. Although they are all outwardly strong, smart and ambitious, they each hide their own secrets and emotions that drive their actions and their relationships to the planet. While the idealistic colonists come ready to change Mars into their own paradise, they are the ones who are changed. Instead of a creating a new utopian society freed from the injustices and inequality of Earth, they see their new world devolve into the same old patterns of conflict and revolution through a mixture of greed, arrogance and apathy. It is only as the Mars they’ve built comes crashing down around them that they begin to see the way forward.

Red Mars is the first in a trilogy of Mars novels, followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars – each detailing a different stage in the evolution of the planet from a dusty crater to a water rich planet that can sustain human life. While I enjoyed the first novel immensely, I may have to wait a bit before tackling the next two books. I still have a long way to go on this list and there are other books calling my name right now.

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August 22, 2010

#40 – The Gods Themselves Review – Isaac Asimov

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While it may not be one of Asimov‘s most famous books, The Gods Themselves is a uniquely ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. With a story told across multiple parallel universes and a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity, the novel is a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the tradeoffs we make in the name of progress and civilization.

The Gods Themselves Summary: The book is told in three distinct parts, each with its own unique setting, rhythm, and characters. The first section takes place on Earth and focuses on a scientist named Hallam who inadvertently stumbles upon a way to exchange matter with a parallel universe that (due to the differences in physical laws between the two universes) results in a seemingly limitless source of free energy. Hallam’s creation of the “Electron Pump” is a major scientific breakthrough and turns him into an overnight celebrity. While the Pump is seen as a godsend to help feed the world’s energy needs, an up and coming scientist named Lamont eventually discovers that the exchange of matter between the two universes is creating a catastrophic increase in the strong nuclear forces within the Sun that will eventually cause it to go Nova. When Lamont brings his concerns to Hallam and the larger scientific and political community, he is shunned due to Hallam’s increasing influence and protectiveness over his creation and reputation. Unable to persuade them to stop using the Electron Pump, Lamont decides that the only way to prevent the destruction of our solar system is to try and contact the “Para-Men” in the other universe who are operating the other end of the Pump.

The second part is where things get really interesting. Set in the “Para-Universe,” it describes a race of beings that is divided up into two distinct forms – the “Hard Ones” and the “Soft Ones.” The Soft Ones are further divided into three groups: Rationals (or “Lefts”), Emotionals (or “Mids”) and Parentals (or “Rights”). Each “Triad” or mating group is made up of one of each of these types. The main focus of this section is on an Emotional named Dua who, like Lamont in our universe, discovers the disastrous consequences of the pump and tries to put a stop to it. While trying to convince her side to stop using the pump, we learn that the sun and stars in the para-universe are dying and that the pump is their only source of energy. In addition, the nova of our sun would actually be a benefit to them, as the amount of energy released would provide them with even more energy. In the midst of trying to solve the problem with the pump, we are also given more information on the purpose of the “Triad” in terms of mating and the mysterious relationship between the Soft Ones and the Hard Ones.

The Gods Themselves Review: There are really two main stories here, each equally interesting and profound. One is the tale of the Electron Pump and the struggle to maintain equilibrium between the two universes in the face of the seduction power of cheap, clean energy. The other is an exercise in species-building in which Asimov conceives of a unique social and mating structure for a race of beings that reside in a parallel universe. It’s a testament to Asimov that he is able to have these two stories co-mingle in the same story in such a natural way. And although the ending may seem a little too easy and convenient, the fascinating questions that the book poses and alternatives it suggests more than makes us for it. While it may not be the first book that comes to mind when you think of Isaac Asimov, it certainly deserves to be talked about and appreciated as much as any of his other works in my opinion.

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August 24, 2010

#30 – The Caves of Steel Review – Isaac Asimov

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While the novel takes place in the same fictional universe as I, Robot, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is a much more conventional novel, although one that delves a lot deeper into the relationship between men and robots in a real-world setting. Where the former details the emergence of robots and the theories of robopsychology (rooted firmly in the Three Laws of Robotics), the latter takes place well into the future in which robots are an accepted fact of life.

Written by Asimov as an example of how science fiction can be applied to any genre (as opposed to being just a genre itself), the book is basically a boilerplate detective story – albeit set thousands of years in the future and featuring thinking robots that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. And while the plot mainly revolves around an unsolved murder, Asimov uses the central mystery to explore a variety of larger themes about the complex and contentious interactions between men and robots.

The Caves of Steel Summary

Set three thousand years in the future, the majority of Earth’s population live in giant, mega-city enclosures (the titular “Caves of Steel”) – completely sealed off from the outside world and self sufficient due to large scale harvesting of various strains of yeast. Living in a smaller enclosure just outside of the city are representatives of The Spacers, descendants of the first humans to travel into space. Over many generations of colonization, the Spacers were able to extend their lifespans and cure themselves of most Terran diseases – making them almost a separate race from Earth bound humans.

Through population control and the extensive use of robot servants, the Spacers are able maintain a high standard of living – something that the overcrowded population of Earth come to resent. But where Spacers have completely embraced robots as a way to enhance their lives, the citizens of Earth are still wary of robots – mainly due to the fact that they have been slowly taking away jobs from humans.

The murder that opens the book (or rather precedes it) is that of a prominent Spacer scientist (presumably by a human). Since relations between Spacers and the Earth population have been strained for some time, the investigation is especially sensitive. Elijah Baley is the human police officer who is assigned to the case and given a most unusual partner to work with: one R. Daneel Olivaw (the R stands for Robot).

Unfortunately Elijah has a pathological dislike of robots (as do a vast majority of the population). Talk about an odd couple. Over the course of the investigation, Baley’s impulsive reasoning and intuitive detective style meshes (and clashes) with Olivaw’s calculating, reasoned and unbiased analysis. And while their styles initially make them more foes than friends, they eventually begin to trust and appreciate each other (or at least Bailey does).

Adding to the intrigue (and list of possible suspects) is the presence of a small faction of the population known as the Medievalists, a group of possible revolutionaries who favor a return to mankind’s organic, traditional origins (outside of cities) and who fear that robots will eventually overtake human society. Because the murdered Spacer was a scientist working on creating robots that look completely human, and due to the fact that it is discovered that the Spacers real agenda on Earth is to help introduce more robots into the society, the Medievalists are the ones with the most compelling motives for murder. However, not everything is always as it seems (as it usually isn’t in these types of novels).

The Caves of Steel Review

While this isn’t the most thought provoking science fiction novel ever written (or the most exciting detective story for that matter), it is nonetheless a very effective and engaging example of both. The setting is unique, the action is fast moving, the mystery is intriguing and the characters are complex and challenging (except for the robot of course).

If Asimov set out to prove that science fiction is a malleable art form that can be used to enhance any genre, then he ultimately succeeded. The Caves of Steel is just the first in many Baley and Olivaw novels, and I plan on reading those at some point. But as you all know, I still have a long way to go on this project, so I’ll just have to let those two relax for a bit while I move on to the next book!

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August 29, 2010

#25 – The Mote in God’s Eye Review – Niven & Pournelle

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This is going to be a tough one. Rarely do I ever leave a book half-finished, but with this one I nearly came close. Although I did eventually finish The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, I have to admit that I came close to giving up due to extreme boredom. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the ideas in the book or the detailed explanation of an extremely complex alien race, it’s that I found the writing to be excruciatingly dull, the characters lifeless and undifferentiated, and the tension and suspense almost non-existent.

This book falls squarely in the “Hard” Science Fiction category, so maybe that had something to do with it (I had similar trouble with Larry Niven’s other book Ringworld), but I tend to think it’s more than that. I may get some flack from some of the more technically inclined Sci-Fi fans out there, but I really think that, no matter how scientifically rigorous or technical a story is, it will still only work if there are characters that you can root for and conflict that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Now I won’t say that the book has no redeeming qualities, but I can’t honestly say that I would recommend it either.

The Mote in God’s Eye Summary

The book tells the story of mankind’s first encounter with an alien species named The Moties (due them residing in the Mote system). The supposed hero of the story is Roderick Blaine, the petulant, headstrong and thoroughly unlikeable captain of the battle cruiser MacArthur, whose ship is the first to rendezvous with the alien spacecraft. After the alien pilot of the first craft is killed, the MacArthur (along with another vessel) is ordered to travel to the Mote from which the probe came. It is there that they first come into contact with living Moties.

Although the first Motie they come into contact with is short, furry and asymmetrical, they soon learn that there are many different castes of Moties, each with their own specific functions in society and their own unique color and configuration of arms and legs. While their initial interactions with the Moties make them seem harmless and peaceful, there is a distinct sense that they are withholding some very important information that could alter their view of them.

While there are a number of different secondary characters that interact with the Moties (both on the spaceship and during an excursion to the Motie planet) none of them are particularly distinct or memorable. I often had a hard time telling who was speaking or what their specific role was on the ship. I do remember one character having a deep Scottish accent, but that’s about it.

The only two other characters that made much of an impression were Sally Fowler, the niece of an imperial senator and Horace Bury, a trader and merchant who is tasked with establishing trade relations with the Moties. Nevertheless, none of the characters come off as particularly likable or sympathetic. The humans spend most of their time arguing whether or not to destroy the Motie race completely, while the Moties themselves spend their time either following around their human counterparts or scheming to keep their true nature hidden from them.

The Mote in God’s Eye Review

The one redeeming factor that I found was in the eventual revelation of the Motie’s secret, and why they felt like they couldn’t reveal it to the humans. While I won’t give the secret away, I will say that it presents a really unique picture of a species that has evolved (and devolved) in a way that is different than humanity while at the same time sharing eerie similarities.

I’m not going to say that this book isn’t for everyone. There may well be plenty of people who find it exciting and illuminating (I guess there has to be if it’s this far up on the list). I’m just giving my opinion that the books shortcomings and faults far outweigh its positive aspects. At the end of the day, I read for enjoyment, and The Mote in God’s Eye didn’t provide enough of that to make it worth the time it took to read.

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September 6, 2010

#24 – Snow Crash Review – Neal Stephenson

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Neal Stephensen’sSnow Crash is the second “Cyber-Punk” novel on this list (the first being Neuromancer) and, in my opinion, the more enjoyable of the two. While both novels take place in a near-future dystopia of high crime and industrial sprawl in which humans are able to interface directly with a world wide data network, Snow Crash presents us with a more sympathetic main character and a more believable and imaginable future landscape – not just in the physical reality of the novel but in the virtual-reality universe that the characters frequently inhabit. For me as a reader, being able to visualize the setting that the action is taking place in is paramount, and Stephensen does a great job of showing you what the characters are experiencing, even when the landscape is unfamiliar and the concepts foreign. Maybe it’s my lack of technical knowledge or an unfamiliarity with the “Hacker” sub-culture, but Gibson’s universe was much more difficult for me to see in my mind’s eye than Snow Crash. And while I didn’t follow everything that happened, I ended up enjoying the fast-paced, darkly humorous nature of the book immensely.

Snow Crash Summary: The society of Snow Crash is no longer ruled by strong government powers, but is instead controlled by various syndicates, corporations and business franchises (such as Uncle Enzo’s CosaNostra Pizza Inc. and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong) who each control a separate enclave in the city of Los Angeles. While most citizens live in comparatively poor conditions (with crime, drugs and violence being widespread), some are able to escape their reality and become someone else by creating and maintaining avatars in what is known as the Metaverse – a virtual reality construction that users are able to interface with by means of personal terminals in the real world. Status and respect in the metaverse are judged primarily by the sophistication of the user’s avatar and the ability to access certain restricted parts of the virtual world.

The Hero of the story is the hilariously named Hiro Protagonist, a pizza driver for the Mob (and virtual Samurai warrior) who, along with a streetwise girl named Y.T. (Yours Truly, of course) begins to investigate the appearance of a drug (or virus) called Snow Crash that has been infecting members of the metaverse while at the same time also infecting the user’s minds in the real world. As they begin to unravel the mystery of the Snow Crash virus, they learn more about the virus’ relationship to ancient Sumerian mythology, neurolinguistics and computer programming – all while searching for the source of the virus in hopes of preventing its widespread use.

Snow Crash Review: While I don’t pretend to fully grasp all of the concepts that Stephensen brings up about computer programs and their intrinsic relationship to human language functions, I understood enough to get the overall gist of the conflict and its context within the larger events of the plot. And apart from the technical aspects of the novel, the notion that someone can become greater than their real world self in a virtual environment through their hacking skills is inherently fascinating and appealing. While Hiro is a mere pizza boy in the real world, in the Metaverse he is a warrior prince and expert swordsman. Who hasn’t wanted to live out a fantasy version of themselves in which their power isn’t limited by physical constrictions or rules? So whether you are a computer programming specialist, an expert in ancient languages or just someone who enjoys a good read, Snow Crash has something to get you hooked.

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September 7, 2010

#20 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Review – Robert A. Heinlein

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In many ways, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s crowning achievement. Carefully plotted, stylistically unique, politically sophisticated and thrilling from page one, it’s hard to imagine anyone else writing a novel that packs so many ideas (both big and small) into such a perfectly contained narrative. Whether you agree with the political philosophies espoused by the main characters or the revolutionary techniques that are used to achieve their ultimate goal, you have to admire Heinlein’s ability to make you root for a rag-tag bunch of criminals, exiles, and agitators as they try to assert their political independence from an adversary as large and as intimidating as the Earth. And while the narrator’s unique lunar dialect (a mixture between colloquial English and Russian) might be a bit hard to follow at first, it won’t take you long to get swept up in the adventure and intrigue.

Summary: Set in 2075, the novel takes place mainly in the underground colonies of the Moon. The Earth’s policy of shipping criminals, exiles, and other unwanteds to the Moon over the years has resulted in a population of almost three-million people (including relatives and descendants of the first settlers). Although it’s not exactly a penal colony, it is a harsh environment that has its own set of rules and customs. While the Earth maintains tentative control over the lunar population through an armed presence, lunar society is, for the most part, allowed to develop on its own. The exception to this is in their trade policies, with the Earth relying on wheat exports from the Moon in order to feed the starving masses in India and Asia. As the material to produce wheat on the Moon is a finite resource, the “Loonies” soon come to realize that if the trade balance doesn’t swing back their way soon, there will be mass food riots on the planet. While anti-authority sentiment has been growing among the Loonies for a while, it is the looming food shortages that provide the trigger for the all-out revolution that follows.

The fight for self-determination and freedom on the part of the Loonies is spearheaded by an unlikely quartet of agitators. We have Manuel “Mannie” Davis, the narrator of our story; a native-born Loonie and computer repair technician with a robotic arm who becomes a reluctant hero in the struggle. Wyoming “Wyoh” Knott, a beautiful young agitator with her own personal reasons for hating the Lunar Authority. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, an elderly scholar and intellectual with advanced ideas about the process of revolution and the ideal political structure. And last but not least, we have the HOLMES IV, also known as “Mike,” the sentient supercomputer that controls all of the machinery and infrastructure of the Lunar colony. Having discovered Mike’s self-awareness when performing routine maintenance one day, Mannie becomes Mike’s first friend and recruits him to help in their efforts. With Mike’s true identity and role in the revolution kept a secret, he inadvertently becomes the figurehead of the revolution under the alias “Adam Selene.”

Review: The first two sections deal with the planning and build up to the insurrection, while the final act deals with the inevitable confrontation with Earth. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you whether or not they succeed in creating an independent, self-determining Lunar state, but I will say that the suspense and momentum that Heinlein is able to achieve is truly remarkable. Along the way you learn to care about these characters not only for who they are, but what they represent. While some people argue that the book is an argument for Libertarianism, I think that interpretation misses the point that Heinlein is trying to make. While he does seem to promote individual liberty and self-determination as a primary goal of society, he doesn’t come to any neat and tidy conclusions as to what the perfect structure to achieve that is. In discussing his own personal philosophy, the Professor admits to being a “Rational Anarchist” – something I’m not even sure Heinlein would admit could work in the real world.

Don’t be intimidated if you’re not passionately interested in the minutiae of political schools of thought. This book can be enjoyed without getting into that element. For everyone else, it’s simply a great story about a group of underdogs fighting for their freedom against authoritarian rule and oppression. And while it may not make you want to travel to the Moon anytime soon, it will make you think twice about crossing anyone who considers themselves a Loonie.

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#14 – Rendezvous With Rama Review – Arthur C. Clarke

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It’s fitting that Rendezvous with Rama comes directly after Ringworld on this list, as both books deal with mysterious mega-structures built by unknown alien civilizations and our attempts to understand their purpose and meaning. But where the mysteries of the Ringworld require an expedition into deep space to investigate, the star ship Rama happens to be traveling directly towards our solar system. And while Clarke’s novel also leaves us with few concrete answers in regards to who built the ship and why, I felt like it did a much better job of describing the wonder and awe of coming into contact with the product of an advanced alien species. I remember being fascinated by this book when I first read it and devouring its three sequels in an attempt at finding answers to the questions posed in the first book.

Rendezvous with Rama Summary: Although it’s originally thought to be a large asteroid, Rama is quickly revealed to be a synthetic structure hurtling through space at unprecedented speeds. Along with this comes the realization that it is in fact a spacecraft and that humanity is about to have its first encounter with an alien civilization. The book spends most of its time following a group of astronauts who have been sent to rendezvous with the starship and learn as much as they can about it. The crew soon learns that Rama is a perfectly cylindrical structure whose near-hollow interior contains an earth-like landscape with fields, oceans and even an island with tall buildings that resembles New York. The only alien life forms that the astronauts encounter are small robot like creatures who ignore the humans and seem to be preparing Rama for some sort of transformation. Each of these revelations serve to deepen the mystery of the space craft and its ultimate purpose.

There is a brief sub-plot in which leaders on earth become convinced that Rama might in fact be hostile and pose a threat to humanity. Although they eventually do launch a nuclear warhead, it has little effect on the object. Unfortunately for the crew (and the reader), Rama eventually gets too close to the Sun for them to continue their investigation and they are forced to leave as the ship is catapulted back out into the solar system (using the Sun’s gravitational field as a slingshot).

Rendezvous with Rama Review: While there are certainly parallels between Clarke and Niven’s takes on the Big Dumb Object trope, I felt that Rendezvous with Rama came closer to capturing the sense of wonderment and excitement that would come with probing and exploring the mysteries of an alien species, as well as getting the reader involved and invested in figuring out their ultimate purpose. Having read all three sequels to Rama (but none of Ringworld’s), I am probably partially biased – but hey, books connect with different people in different ways and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the ones that have affected me more than others.

Rendezvous with Rama Series: Rendezvous with Rama | Rama II | The Garden of Rama | Rama Revealed

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September 17, 2010

#13 – Ringworld Review – Larry Niven

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Any book that begins with the main character teleporting to different time zones in order to prolong his 200th birthday party is worth giving a chance. And while Ringworld doesn’t exactly live up to its intriguing opening, it’s still a fun read with its share of interesting ideas and characters. The most interesting of those ideas is the titular Ringworld, a colossal artificial ring orbiting a distant star. The architects of the Ringworld and their purpose in building it form the central mystery of the novel, although the shallow characters and improbable circumstances threaten to overshadow it.

Ringworld Summary: The book tells the story of Louis Wu (our birthday boy!) and his fellow companions on a mission to the Ringworld to investigate its origins. Joining him on the journey are Nessus (a two-headed herbivore with a cowardly streak), Speaker-to-Animals (a Tiger/Human hybrid-like alien with a nasty temper) and Teela Brown, a fellow human. While it’s not immediately apparent, each of the members of the crew have been selected for a specific reason. After crash landing on the mysterious world, the group sets out on a mission to the edge of the ring where they hope to find some sort of technology that will help them get back into space. Along the way, the group encounters a number of strange things, including a primitive human-like civilization and a field of sunflowers that somehow shoot laser beams at the intruders (don’t ask).

Ringworld Review: Although the basic premise of the novel should have made for a great read, I felt like the book got bogged down in the middle with too much exposition and technical minutiae. While I wouldn’t exactly call this “Hard” Sci-Fi, I do think that Niven spent way too much time explaining the mechanical workings of the Ringworld (including exact measurements of its radius, gravity and spin velocity) and not enough time painting a vivid picture of what was actually happening to the main characters – or why we should care about them at all. I often found myself not being able to tell which of the two alien species were talking at any given moment. I’m as much of a fan of otherworldy awe and spectacle as the next guy, but if its not supported by someone I can relate to (or at least root for), then it often falls flat.

In its defensive, Ringworld actually seems like an introduction to a much larger (and more interesting story), and with three sequels and three prequels currently available, I’m betting that the characters and story eventually get fleshed out even more. And while I may not be clamoring to figure out exactly who these mysterious Ringworld Engineers were (and how the hell they built it), I’m sure that there are plenty of people who are.

Ringworld Series: Ringworld | The Ringworld Engineers | The Ringworld Throne | Ringworld’s Children

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September 18, 2010