#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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#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

#37 – Cat’s Cradle Summary – Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat’s Cradle is the second Kurt Vonnegut novel on this list and, although I personally would have put The Siren’s of Titan (#57) ahead of this one, I can still see why this book is so highly regarded and is often thought of as one of his best novels. Vonnegut is known for taking on issues of social importance in a humorous and satirical way, and this book is no exception.

The target this time is modern science and the way in which it exists almost as a game for scientists to play, irregardless of the devastating outcomes that their discoveries can have. Through the use of a fictional atomic scientist and a well-meaning but catastrophic invention, Vonnegut is able to show us the irony of a situation in which science tries to improve the quality of life for mankind, yet ultimately helps bring about its destruction.

Cat’s Cradle Summary

The aforementioned scientist is one Felix Hoenikker, preeminent physicist and co-creator of the atomic bomb. The narrator of the book is a man named John who has been researching Hoenikker as part of a book on the bombing of Hiroshima. Although Hoenikker is now dead, John comes into contact with his children while doing research from the book and learns a great deal about the reclusive scientist, including the rumored existence of a substance called “Ice-9” which has the ability to rearrange the molecular structure of water so that it is solid at room temperature.

Originally developed for the military in order to help soldiers navigate easier over muddy terrain, it also has the side affect of converting every drop of water it comes into contact with into this new solid state – something that could have tragic consequences for the world’s water supply. To make matters even more complicated, Hoenikker left the substance to his children (Frank, Angela and Newt) after his death, after which they each traded their shares of the substance away for their own personal gain.

Eventually John, as well as the Hoenikker children (in separate circumstances), find themselves on the poor island nation of San Lorenzo under the watchful eye of the ailing dictator “Papa” Monzano. The residents of the island all practice a peculiar form of religion called Bokononism – characterized by cynical (almost nihilistic) observations about god and life in general (as well as a ritual in which people place the soles of their feet together in order to achieve inner harmony and communion).

It is eventually revealed that Bokononism was originally invented by the island’s previous rulers as a way to control the populace and keep peace in the country. While the practice of Bokononism is officially outlawed in the country, it is also explained that this is merely a way to add the religion an added aura of danger and mystique.

Cat’s Cradle Review

As usual, Vonnegut brings his unique sense of humor and absurdity to the proceedings, making for a deliciously whacked out exploration of the foibles of scientific progress in the modern age. And while he roots his story in the real life fears of the atomic age (the book was published at a time in which the threat of nuclear war was all too real), he also provides a more sinister (and seemingly innocuous) threat to mankind in the form of the substance Ice-9.

In Vonnegut’s mind, it is not only the creation and the existence of the substance that dooms mankind to total destruction, it is the disregard that its creator had for the inevitable consequences that his actions would have – as well as the selfish nature of those entrusted to protect it. Although Vonnegut’s humor livens the story up somewhat, this is ultimately a supremely pessimistic book about the inevitability of mankind’s eventual self-sabotage.

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August 24, 2010

#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

#26 – The Left Hand of Darkness Review – Ursula K Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness is the first novel on this list from a female author. And while it’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in the world of Science Fiction, the ones that are (such as Ursula K. LeGuin) are so good that we often forget that they make up such a small portion of the celebrated authors in the field. Some critics have called ‘Darkness‘ a “Feminist” science fiction novel, but I think that label does a disservice to LeGuin and women writers in general. Just because the book tackles complex issues of gender identity, sexuality and politics, doesn’t mean that it should get saddled with such a politically charged label – and people’s attempts to co-opt the book to support their own agendas or worldview are missing the point entirely. The deftness of LeGuin’s writing is not in its ability to make grand pronouncements on the inherent evils of a male dominated culture, but in its capacity to pose fascinating questions on the nature of gender and its role in society so that we can examine them ourselves and reach our own conclusions.

The Left Hand of Darkness Summary: Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, the novel takes place on the planet ‘Winter’, a cold, frozen world that is in the middle of an ice age. The citizens of Winter share a unique physiological trait – they are genderless and androgynous for all but two days out of each month, during which they become either male or female depending upon the partner that they are coupling with. In essence, residents of the planet contain the makeup of both sexes, leading to a society in which problems resulting from gender differences are virtually unheard of. But while male sexual dominance and female dependence may be unknown in their culture, there is still room for many other conflicting human characteristics such as love, jealousy, power and politics. And while war is also something that is rarely (if ever) seen on Winter, two of the planet’s largest countries seem to be on the brink of some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book.

Although the book is told from a few different points of view, the story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who is sent to try and bring the planet of Winter into the organization of planets known as the Ekumen. Genly faces many obstacles upon arriving in the kingdom of Karhide and is ultimately saved by the Prime Minister Estraven. The political intrigue surrounding a piece of disputed territory causes Estraven to be sent into exile. After resistance from the King of Karhide, Genrly goes to the neighboring territory of Orgoreyn to plead with its leaders for help. Meeting up with Estraven again who is living in exile, the pair make a harrowing journey across ice and snow to return to Karhide. During the journey, Genly becomes close with Estraven and learns many things about his companion, including a period of “Kemmer” in which Estraven briefly becomes a woman, which helps him understand the true nature of the androgynous people of the planet.

The Left Hand of Darkness Review: While the narrative gets bogged down a little in the middle (and during their interminable trek across the barren ice), the unique nature of the characters and conflicts keep the book moving along at a brisk pace. The fact of whether or not the planet becomes a part of the Ekumen is secondary to the fate of the characters and how they reflect the society that they are a part of. For me, it wasn’t until after I had finished the novel that I started pondering some of the larger questions and themes that the book presented – and that is a good thing in my opinion. LeGuin’s ability to paint a believable portrait of a society in which all members are both male AND female draws the reader in so deeply that they don’t even realize the staggering implications of what it means for a culture to not have a clearly defined barrier between genders. It is this ability that makes her not merely a great “Feminist” science fiction writer, but one of the best overall Science Fiction authors writing today.

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September 5, 2010

#15 – Hyperion Review – Dan Simmons

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Hyperion is one of the truly revelatory books that I came across while working my way through this list. While discovering some of the other books on this list felt like finding a $100 bill in my pocket, this one felt like a winning lottery ticket. From its beautifully striking (and unnerving) cover to its deep literary allusions and grand themes, Simmons’ classic has everything that a science fiction fan could want: complex characters who are flawed yet sympathetic, worlds and landscapes of unprecedented beauty and menace, powerful cosmic forces on the brink of war and an enigmatic villain/savior whose mere mention can strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful men.

The fact that the writing is also fast-paced, engaging, evocative and purposeful makes it easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read (in any genre). Although I was humming along through this list when I read it, I couldn’t help but take a break to read each of Hyperion’s sequels (collectively known as the Hyperion Cantos) in quick succession. If you’re a fan of fiction in any form, I can’t recommend it more.

Hyperion Summary

The structure of Hyperion mirrors that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in its use of a pilgrimage as a framing device during which each of its main characters get a chance to tell their own unique story. The voyage is made up of seven pilgrims: the Priest, the Soldier, the Poet, the Scholar (and his daughter), the Detective and the Consul – each of whom have their own compelling back story that help give us an idea of why they chose to make the trip.

The trip itself involves a pilgrimage to the distant planet of Hyperion in order to confront the legendary creature known as The Shrike (so named for its habit of impaling its victims on a tree of metal thorns). With the WorldWeb on the brink of war with a barbarian group of genetically altered humans called the Ousters, the pilgrims have been asked to make one last journey to the Time Tombs (ancients structures that move backwards through time) in order to learn the secret of the Shrike and hopefully help prevent the destruction of human civilization.

The stories that the pilgrims tell are by turns spiritual, passionate, humorous, frightening and tragic. From the tale of Sol Weintraub (the Scholar), whose daughter Rachel contracts a disease which causes her to age backwards, to the mad poet Martin Silenus whose obsession with finishing his epic poem requires him to make some terrible sacrifices, the one thing that all of the pilgrims share is a connection with the creature known as The Shrike and the Time Tombs that are supposed to hold it prisoner.

Described as being a nine foot tall mass of razors, blades and wires, The Shrike is the ultimate killing machine – seeming to have the ability to appear and disappear at will, as well as travel through time and be in multiple places at once. The Shrike’s motives and creators are unknown, but the conventional thinking among the cults that have sprung up to worship it are that it was sent as a form of divine retribution for humanity’s hubris and decadence, although others think that it may have been sent back in time by an Ultimate Artificial Intelligence. Either way, it seems to play a central role in the coming human conflict, which is the reasons the pilgrims have been chosen to confront it.

Hyperion Review

My brief description of the story can’t even begin to describe the complexity and originality of the universe that Dan Simmons has created. In addition to the novel as a whole, each of the pilgrim’s tales work as a standalone narrative that could hold their own as a short story in their own right (or maybe short novella). Although the book does contain a few pretty disturbing moments (such as a description of The Shrike’s “Tree of Thorns” on which thousands of victims writhe in pain and torment for eternity), it manages to balance them out with moments of true tenderness and pathos. And while the series does lose steam towards the final books (as most series do), the first book is still a masterpiece that deserves to be compared with some of the classics of science fiction. A must read in my opinion!

The Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion | The Fall of Hyperion | Endymion | The Rise of Endymion

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September 16, 2010

#11 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Review – Philip K. Dick

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Philip K. Dick’s masterful vision of a near future world in which bounty hunters are paid to “retire” rogue androids that have escaped and infiltrated human society. While most people know this as the book that inspired the classic Sci-Fi thriller Blade Runner, there are actually a number of significant differences between the movie version and the novel. And although they both share similar themes, such as what it means to be human, there are whole sub-plots and subjects in the book that are completely missing in the film. That’s not to say that one is better than the other. In my opinion they work well as companion pieces, and I recommend reading the book whether or not you have seen the movie.

Summary: The story takes place in San Francisco in a near-future Earth that has been made almost completely uninhabitable by radioactive fallout from World War Terminus. Most of Earth’s inhabitants have left to settle on the off-world colonies of Mars and beyond as a way to avoid the genetic degradation and damage that the nuclear fallout can inflict. Those that are left behind, including those who couldn’t pass the mental and genetic tests required to help humanity recover, are left to live in empty, decayed buildings and decaying cities. Due to the devastating impact of the radiation on the natural environment, living animals are extremely scarce – and owning a real one is a sign of prestige and social status. Those who can’t afford the high price of a real animal often resort to synthetic, mechanical copies in order to keep up appearances. Besides being a way to help protect species from extinction, the act of caring for these animals also forms the basis of the main religion among those left on Earth, Mercerism. Based on the trials and suffering of the mythical Wilbur Mercer, Mercerism is based on the collective empathy of the human race towards each other. Followers of Mercerism are literally connected through “Empathy Boxes” which connect their minds to each other in order to experience the suffering of Mercer. It is this ability to empathize (both with people and animals) that Dick sees as the defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job it is to track down Replicants, androids so sophisticated that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Although they are used primarily in the off-world colonies as slave labor, they occasionally break free of their programming and try to blend in with the rest of humanity. As the novel begins, Deckard is given the task of tracking down and “retiring” a group of rogue androids who have escaped from Mars. Because this latest generation of replicants are so sophisticated, Deckard must use what is known as the Voight-Kampff test in order to tell whether someone is human or not. Based on a series of emotionally (and empathically) targeted questions, the test measures minute changes in perspiration, eye movement and heart rate. Because androids lack an innate sense of empathy, their response times are not in line with a normal human’s, although the differences are often so subtle that they can only be detected, ironically, by a machine. As Deckard begins to track down and “retire” each of the escaped replicants, he begins to question the morality of his actions. Even though the people he is killing are actually machines, the fact that they act so much like humans causes him to start having feelings of empathy towards them – and in particular a replicant named Rachel Rosen, who he falls in love with.

Review: This book is a page-turner. Part hard boiled detective novel, part meditation on religion, reality and humanity. Dick has an uncanny ability to make even the most bizarre situations seem real and powerful. And although the film version is a first rate science fiction thriller with amazing art direction and mood, the book provides a much more meaningful and nuanced examination of what it means to be human and how we treat those things that we deem worthy of empathy.

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September 22, 2010

#6 – Stranger in a Strange Land Review – Robert Heinlein

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Few books deserve the title of “Cult Classic” more than Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a Martian-raised human who returns to earth and ends up transforming human culture in profound ways. Although it started out as a minor hit in the science fiction world, Stranger in a Strange Land would eventually became a crossover success – attracting a devoted following among the counterculture movement of the 1960’s due to its emphasis on free love, liberty and the shared human experience. And while it may not seem as controversial and groundbreaking today as it did back then, it still has a lot to say about our current culture of consumerism and our reliance on organized religion to dictate our social and spiritual interactions.

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary

The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the offspring of the first human astronauts to reach the planet Mars. After the death of the crew, Smith becomes an orphan and is raised by the native Martians as if he were one of their own. During his time there, he acquires a number of the traits of the Martian culture, including the ability to read minds and control matter in strange and unusual ways. When he is eventually found and brought back to earth by a second expedition to Mars, he becomes an instant celebrity as the only known human to have made contact with the Martians and returned to Earth.

Valentine’s acclimation to human customs and mores (as well as Earth’s gravity and physical constraints) is slow and awkward – helped along by a Nurse named Gillian Boardman who inadvertently becomes Smith’s first “Water-Brother.” After escaping the grasp of leaders who wish to use him for their own personal gain, Valentine and Gillian (along with the help of the famous author and bon vivant Jubal Harshaw) are able to set about constructing a religion of their own based on the principles and teachings of the Martian way.

While some of the overall themes may seem a little heavy-handed to a modern audience, I can see how they may have caused a stir when they were first published.

Stranger in a Strange Land Quotes

“Smith is not a man. He is an intelligent creature with the genes and ancestry of a man, but he is not a man. He’s more a Martian than a man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a human being. He thinks like a Martian, he feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us. Why, they don’t even have sex. Smith has never laid eyes on a woman — still hasn’t if my orders have been carried out. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment.”

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own”

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September 25, 2010

#71 The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review – Philip K Dick

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Very few science fiction writers have the ability to merge so many different themes and ideas together in a single novel as Philip K Dick. With its exploration of drug addiction, precognition, marketing, enhanced evolution, religious belief and the nature of reality, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is one of the most striking examples of Dick’s restless ingenuity and unparalleled imagination. With a novel so stuffed to the brim with complex ontological questions and spiritual provocations, you’d expect it to be a tough read. But in reality, Dick is able to keep the action brisk, the characters intriguing and the implications mind-boggling, all while infusing the entire thing with an unsettling mix of illusion and fantasy.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Summary

Set in a near future in which mankind has colonized most of the planets and moons of our solar system (mainly by the use of forced conscripts unlucky enough to have been selected in a lottery), a drug called Can-D is widely used by the exiled colonists in order to escape reality and experience a brief but hyper-realistic simulation of their previous lives on earth. Using a manufactured physical “Layout” as a vessel for their hallucinations (produced by Earth based P.P. Layouts, Inc.), users of Can-D are “translated” into the bodies of Barbie like dolls and allowed live and play in an idealized version of Earth – albeit for a short amount of time. The process of translation takes on religious overtones as well – with some of the colonists believing that this idealized world that they are transported to is actually real and that they are having a genuine spiritual experience.

Not only does P.P. Layouts control most of the market for the Layouts (as well as the illegal supply of Can-D that the colonists use), they also design and sell accessories for the layouts in order to make them seem even more realistic (i.e. dishwashers, ceramic pots, etc.). In order to gain an advantage over other accessory manufacturers, they employ a team of pre-cog marketers to look into the future to determine which products will be the most successful. However, their virtual monopoly over the illusory lives of the colonists is put in jeopardy by the return of the explorer Palmer Eldritch from a decades long trip to the Proxima system.

Leo Bulero, head of P.P. Layouts, rightly suspects that Eldritch has brought back a new type of Hallucinogen from the Proxima system that will rival Can-D and effectively put him out of business. Marketed under the slogan “God promises eternal life, We can deliver it,” Eldritch’s new drug (Chew-Z) is frighteningly powerful – especially since it seems as if Eldritch maintains some sort of control over the environment and experiences of those under the influence. With the approval of the U.N., Eldritch is poised to set up a distribution network for the drug in order to start muscling in on the “Translation” drug trade. In a last ditch effort to save his business, Bulero hires his former top precog marketer, Barney Mayerson (now a colonist on Mars), to serve as a double agent in order to question the safety of Chew-Z. Instead, Barney is pulled even further into the fantasy worlds of both men, leading to an ultimate confrontation in which the very nature of individual reality and existence comes into question.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review

Once you get past the sheer brilliance of the initial setup, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the masterful way that Dick weaves the story in and out of the various levels of reality and hallucinatory states. The idea that the only salvation that these exiled colonists can achieve is through a drug that projects them onto someone else’s existence is both powerful and profoundly sad. And as the actions and motives of Palmer Eldritch become even more sinister (and Dick’s allusions to the suffering of Christ which the three Stigmata signify become even clearer), we are left with a disturbing picture of god-like forces at war to control the human race.

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January 14, 2011