#2 – Dune Review – Frank Herbert

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

Dune Summary

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

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

Dune Review

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

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

Dune Quotes

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

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

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September 29, 2010

#3 – Foundation Review – Isaac Asimov

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

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

Foundation Summary

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

Foundation Review

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

Foundation Quotes

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

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

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

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

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September 29, 2010

#96 – City Review – Clifford Simak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#52 – The End of Eternity Review – Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#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

#49 – Flowers for Algernon Review – Daniel Keyes

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Flowers for Algernon is Daniel Keyes most famous novel and one that continues to challenge and inspire readers of all ages. Told through the eyes and words of a mentally retarded man named Charlie Gordon, the book manages to explore issues of intelligence, emotion and the ways in which the human mind is able to shape how we view the world and our relationships with the people in it. With only mild science fiction elements, the book has become a “gateway” book of sorts for readers who might not normally be drawn to the genre. It doesn’t take place in space and doesn’t feature any alien creatures or other dimensions. In fact, other than the experimental science elements, the characters and settings in the book are extremely ordinary. I remember reading it in school (probably sometime around 7th grade) and not even realizing it was a science fiction novel until it came time to discuss the book in class. For me, the most powerful part of the novel wasn’t the idea that there was an operation that could triple your IQ and make you a genius, it was the fact that Charlie’s increased intelligence finally made him aware of what a harsh, cruel and unfair world he was actually living in.  That, in my opinion, is why the book has remained universally popular for so long.

Flowers for Algernon Summary: With an initial IQ of 68, Charlie works as a janitor and delivery boy at a bakery in New York City, while also taking classes at a college for retarded adults. At the recommendation of his teacher Alice, Charlie is chosen to participate in an experimental surgery designed to increase intelligence. Told through a series of reports that he is asked by the scientists to write, the novel follows Charlie’s as he keeps track of his progress – as well as that of the experiment’s first test subject – a white laboratory mouse named Algernon. In the same way that Algernon begins showing signs of increased intelligence and problem solving skills, so does Charlie. With help from Alice, Charlie starts exercising his new abilities by reading and acquiring as much knowledge as he possibly can. But while his new found intelligence makes him more open and aware of the world around him, it also starts to affect the relationships in his life. When a suggestion that he makes for improving productivity at the bakery is implemented, his co-workers conspire to have him fired. He begins to express his growing resentment towards the scientists and their condescending attitudes toward him as merely a “test subject.” And as the object of his sexual desire, his relationship with Alice becomes muddled and complex due in part to memories from his past that he is now just starting to understand.

His increased intelligence also causes him to start recovering painful lost memories from his childhood, including the mental and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother while growing up. Unable to deal with Charlie’s disability and angry at him for not being “normal,” she beats him mercilessly whenever he starts to act out in any way (including sexually).  In an attempt to confront these memories and possible reconnect with his estranged family, Charlie returns to the family home in Brooklyn where he discovers that his mother is now suffering from dementia.  It’s a profoundly sad and touching scene, as Charlie realizes that their roles have now been reversed. While his mom is initial excited to see him and proud of his accomplishments, she briefly suffers a delusional spell and slips back into her old monstrous ways. While he is glad to have faced his demons and confronted these painful memories, his mother’s regression is a troubling reminder to him of how quickly we can revert back to our previous states –  a realization that foreshadows his own regression back to a pre-surgery state.

Flowers for Algernon Review: The final section of the novel follows Charlie’s realization that the scientists have made a fatal error in their calculations and that his increased intelligence is likely to disappear as quickly as it came. We are then forced to watch as Charlie slowly regresses, losing the memory of his brief time as a genius (including his romantic relationship with Alice). It’s a heartbreakingly tragic sequence, as Charlie cannot bear to have the people in his life feel sorry for him once again, and the author handles it with a delicate touch that serves to underscore the tragedy even further. In the end, Flowers for Algernon is a rather simple story about a simple character who comes to realize that his world (and his relationships) are much more complex than he had previously thought. And while the events in the novel are initiated by a plot mechanism that is not currently available to modern science, it is not your typical “Science Fiction” yarn by any stretch of the imagination. And in many ways, that’s actually a good thing. So even if you’re not a rabid Sci Fi fan like myself, I’m sure you’ll still find something to appreciate in this tale.

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#45 – Time Enough for Love Review – Robert Heinlein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#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

#29 – The Man in the High Castle Review – Philip K Dick

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The Man in the High Castle is probably one of the most famous examples of “Alternate History” in all of literature. Philip K. Dick’s vision of a world in which the Axis powers (Japan and Germany) won the second World War is a bone-chilling exploration of the notion of truth, authenticity and the unreliable nature of reality. In showing us a world that could-have-been, Dick is able to explore (in typically mind-bending Philip K. Dick fashion) the idea of false realities and the value we place on objects, people and events that we think of as being “True”. And while the idea that our reality may not be the real (or only) reality is a common theme among Dick’s novels, Castle provides the reader with a much more tangible narrative structure and immersive story than some of his other books, allowing him to weave in these deep philosophical themes and ideas in a way that is subtle yet deeply powerful. Although I’ve had trouble with some of Dick’s late-period novels, this one really succeeds on multiple levels: as a story of intrigue and espionage between two superpowers, as a tale of resistance and rebellion against tyranny and oppression, and as a meditation on how we understand history through the prism of our own sense of reality.

The Man in the High Castle Summary: The book takes place in an America that is divided amongst the world’s two remaining superpowers – with German controlling most of the Eastern portion of the country and Japan controlling the West coast (with the central Rocky Mountain region serving as a buffer zone between the two nations). Since winning the war and dividing up most of the territories of the world, the two victors have since become engaged in their own “Cold War,” with each side suspicious of the others intentions and engaged in espionage in order to keep them from gaining too much power. There is a an extremely unsettling and horrific passage in the book that describes the atrocities that the Nazis had unleashed upon the population of Africa as part of their “Final Solution.”

The human drama takes places mostly in Japanese occupied San Francisco, following Frank Frink as a man who deals in pre-war Americana reproductions while dealing with life under his new Imperial rulers. Frink’s company then sells those fake items to a man named Robert Childan who sells them to collectors and businessmen as if they are real. The notion of whether or not these “Reproductions” of artifacts are authentic or not (and what the notion of authenticity even implies) is one of the ways in which Dick is able to get us to start thinking about the confusing truths that surround the things we think of as containing “History.

Now here is where the story gets really twisted. Throughout the first part of the book there are references to a subversive novel that was written by a reclusive writer who is supposedly holed up in a castle (hence the title) somewhere in Colorado. The novel in question is called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and tells of an alternate history (within the context of the novel) in which the Allies actually won the war. In effect, the book is an alternate reality within an alternate reality, describing a version of history much like our own (although not exactly the same). The German’s think that the book and the ideas it represents are dangerous, and send an operative to assassinate the writer (hence the reason for living in solitude in a castle).

The Man in the High Castle Review: I’ll be honest. It is more than a little disturbing to be presented with a world that shows us the possibility of what could have unfolded had the circumstances been different. But as Dick turns the tables on us and makes us confront the horror of living in a world occupied and ruled by our enemies, he is also showing us that the tenuous nature of reality gives us the ability to create our own history and that the simple fact of imagining a reality that is different from our own can be considered a treasonous act. In these days of state controlled censorship and an apathetic media that just broadcasts the “Official” story (I’m talking about our world now), this idea is particularly relevant. Who controls history? Who is responsible for writing down the truth? What is the truth of our reality anyway? It is these questions that form the heart of The Man in the High Castle and make it such an important book and one worth reading.

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August 31, 2010