#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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#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

#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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#9 – I, Robot Review – Isaac Asimov

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The second book from Isaac Asimov on this list actually takes place in the same fictional universe as the first one, albeit thousands of years previous. Years before Hari Seldon starts preparing the Foundation, I, Robot shows us a time in which mankind is taking its first baby steps out into the universe with the help of intelligent robots. While these robots are able to perform tasks that no human would possibly be able to do, they also start to exhibit some unexpected behavioral and psychological tendencies that threaten to derail the use of robots altogether.

I, Robot Summary: Told primarily through the perspective of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, the book is made up of 9 separate short stories that detail the early history of robotics and the different stages of robot development. As the robots become progressively more intelligent and sophisticated, the unique peculiarities of their psychology (informed primarily by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics) take on many different forms that their human creators are forced to deal with. The majority of these incidents occur as a result of a conflict between the laws that the robots are taught to obey and the ways in which their actions affect the humans that work with them.

I, Robot Review: While most depictions of robots in fiction up to that time had been of the “Frankenstein Complex” variety (in which a robot turns against its master), Asimov’s Robot stories offer a much more complex vision of the interactions between men and thinking machines. Because of the three laws of robotics that are programmed into every intelligent robot, complex moral ambiguities and situations begin to arise as humans are forced to ask more and more of their mechanical creations. While some of the stories do tap into our traditional fears of robots (including one in which a politician is accused of being a robot or another one in which a robot can read minds), the reasons for the robot’s dysfunction is never seen as malicious or aggressive – merely the product of a mind that is incapable of thinking outsides its pre-set parameters.

Besides creating a blueprint for all future science fiction writers (and some actual scientists) to use when dealing with robots, Asimov also gives the reader 9 effortlessly captivating detective stories in which Dr. Calvin (or the team of Powell and Donovan) are forced to play Sherlock Holmes in order to deduce the reason for a particular robot’s erratic behavior. Told with Asimov’s usual biting wit and humor, I, Robot presents a compelling (and entertaining) argument for the notion that robots are often just a morally conflicted and complex as the humans that create them.

I, Robot Movie: The recent film adaption (in name only) of I, Robot, starring Will Smith, really has absolutely nothing to do with the book it stole it’s name from. The movie uses the basic premise of man’s growing wariness and suspicion of robots and turns it into a dull, formulaic action flick with the robots as the bad guys and Smith as the hero. Any subtlety or analysis of the robot psyche is discarded in favor of silly car chases as simple, moralistic sermonizing. It’s so bad I won’t even link to it below.

The Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

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