#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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#21 – The Forever War Review – Joe Haldeman

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Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a worthy counterpoint to the military Science Fiction of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. But while both deal with the logistical challenges and emotional effects of fighting a war in outer space against an alien species, the underlying themes and sentiments of the novels couldn’t be further apart. Where Heinlein’s future soldiers are all volunteers who see the value in self-sacrifice and service in the name of protecting humanity, Haldeman’s hero is a reluctant conscript who muses on the absurdity and inhumanity of fighting an interstellar war over the course of a thousand years, and who only rises in rank as a result of being the oldest serving soldier. For me, The Forever War paints a more moving portrait of war and its effects on the individuals involved in fighting it. Maybe it’s just my lefty politics or my own personal beliefs regarding the absurdity of war in general, but I think there’s more to it than that. Besides its commentary on the nature of war, the book also poses a very interesting practical question about the nature of a war fought across light-years: Because of the time-dilation involved in faster than light travel, how do you coordinate your strategy when years pass between each battle (and how do soldiers readjust to a world that has changed immeasurably since they first left)?

The Forever War Summary: The protagonist is William Mandella, a student who is drafted into an elite military task force without his consent and shipped off to war against the Taurans. After a grueling training period, Mandella is involved in a resounding victory against an enemy base. However, due to time dilation, decades have passed when they finally return home to Earth (even though they’ve only been out less than a year in their time). Besides the culture shock of returning to a completely different world, the Military is also dealing with the fact that the Taurans have had that much more time to develop more sophisticated weaponry and technology, leaving them at a distinct advantage. After surviving four more years of battle, Mandella officially becomes the oldest soldier in the war (with hundreds of years of objective service). By the time he and his companion Marygay return to Earth a final time, society has become nearly unrecognizable. With nothing left to tie him to Earth, he and Marygay decide instead to re-enlist.

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

While it could be considered by some to be an Anti-War novel, it is certainly not blatant or preachy in its method or message. Haldeman was influenced by his own experiences as a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the parallels between that conflict and the one depicted in The Forever War. Just as soldiers returning from Vietnam experienced profound alienation after returning home from war, the soldiers of The Forever War return to an Earth in which they literally don’t even speak the language. While some have tried to portray the book as a direct response to Starship Troopers, Haldeman has denied it profusely and said that Heinlein’s work helped inform his own. Regardless of its overt intentions, I did feel that it provided a more soulful, personal and moving picture of the nature of war that is universal, regardless of whether the war is being fought with tanks and machine guns or spaceships and lasers. Highly recommended.

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September 10, 2010

Posted in Far Future, Military Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

#23 – Slaughterhouse Five Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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I should probably be clear about this from the very start: Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers of all time and Slaughterhouse Five is probably the best book he’s ever written in my humble opinion – and if that clouds my review in any way, well…so it goes. Blending equal amounts humor, history and absurdist fantasy, the book amounts to nothing less than a treatise on free will, the nature of the universe and the inevitability of human conflict. It is thought provoking, side-splittingly funny and eminently readable, while also being an unflinching look at one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. Not many authors can juggle this many themes and topics together in one book (all while using a non-linear narrative), but Vonnegut is definitely one who can. Now that I think about it, Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the first book to get me interested in Science Fiction – and to make me realize that events in a novel don’t necessarily have to be realistic to make profound statements about the realities of the human condition.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary: Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death) recounts various moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim, a reluctant soldier during World War II. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the narrative skips around to various moments in Billy’s life out of chronological order. Vonnegut describes him as being “unstuck in time,” uncertain as to which moment in his life he will be “re-living” next. During the course of the novel, we see Billy as a German prisoner being held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden (during the Bombing of Dresden), as a captive of an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore who exhibit him as part of their zoo along with a porn actress, as a married man in post-war America, and even during his death. The totality of his experiences, along with a revelation by the Tralfamadorians about the 4 dimensional nature of the universe, eventually leads Billy to accept the predetermined nature of his own life (and that of a humanity that believes foolishly in free-will). While the book may be consider an “Anti-War” novel, it could just as easily be classified as an “Inevitability of War” book, as Billy’s reaction to some of the novels most disturbing revelations about death and the nature of mortality is the oft-repeated phrase…so it goes.

The pivotal event in the novel is the now-infamous firebombing of the city of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force in 1945. Vonnegut himself was actually a German prisoner of war during the bombing and was forced to help dispose of the bodies after the attack was over. The profound meaninglessness of the bombing in the overall scheme of the war along with the astronomically high number of civilian casualties had a profound affect on him, and the reality of that experience can be felt distinctly throughout the book. It is inevitable that Billy Pilgrim is often seen as an extension of Vonnegut himself, even though the voice of “Vonnegut” the narrator also makes brief appearances at various points in the novel. One of his other alter-egos, struggling Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout, also makes a cameo, along with a few other characters that would become or had been characters in other of his novels, including Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Eliot Rosewater.

Slaughterhouse-Five Review: While Slaughterhouse-Five is often accused of being “Fatalistic” and that Vonnegut seems resigned to the atrocities of man as pre-determined and inevitable (as well as being frequently censored due to its “obscene” content and irreverence when talking about issues that are often cloaked in solemnity and reverence), it is also one of the best examples of how post-modern novelists often try to examine the absurdity of our search for meaning and transcendence in the face of such blatant assaults on our notions of decency and human compassion. To me, Vonnegut isn’t telling us that war is a fact of life that we should just accept. Instead, he is showing us the ways in which we attempt to rationalize and normalize these experiences so as not to be overcome by their inherent meaninglessness. And the fact that he is able to do this while at the same time being a ruthlessly funny and compelling storyteller is a testament to his ability as a writer and social satirist. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are a fan of Science Fiction or not.

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September 8, 2010

Posted in Alien Contact, Satire, Time Travel, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

#24 – Snow Crash Review – Neal Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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September 7, 2010

Posted in Cyberpunk, Dystopia, Hard Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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

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This is going to be a tough one. Rarely do I ever leave a book half-finished, but with this one I nearly came close. Although I did eventually finish The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, I have to admit that I came close to giving up due to extreme boredom. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the ideas in the book or the detailed explanation of an extremely complex alien race, it’s that I found the writing to be excruciatingly dull, the characters lifeless and undifferentiated, and the tension and suspense almost non-existent. This book falls squarely in the “Hard” Science Fiction category, so maybe that had something to do with it (I had similar trouble with Larry Niven’s other book Ringworld), but I tend to think it’s more than that. I may get some flack from some of the more technically inclined Sci-Fi fans out there, but I really think that, no matter how scientifically rigorous or technical a story is, it will still only work if there are characters that you can root for and conflict that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Now I won’t say that the book has no redeeming qualities, but I can’t honestly say that I would recommend it either.

The Mote in God’s Eye Summary: The book tells the story of mankind’s first encounter with an alien species named The Moties (due them residing in the Mote system). The supposed hero of the story is Roderick Blaine, the petulant, headstrong and thoroughly unlikeable captain of the battle cruiser MacArthur, whose ship is the first to rendezvous with the alien spacecraft. After the alien pilot of the first craft is killed, the MacArthur (along with another vessel) is ordered to travel to the Mote from which the probe came. It is there that they first come into contact with living Moties. Although the first Motie they come into contact with is short, furry and asymmetrical, they soon learn that there are many different castes of Moties, each with their own specific functions in society and their own unique color and configuration of arms and legs. While their initial interactions with the Moties make them seem harmless and peaceful, there is a distinct sense that they are withholding some very important information that could alter their view of them.

While there are a number of different secondary characters that interact with the Moties (both on the spaceship and during an excursion to the Motie planet) none of them are particularly distinct or memorable. I often had a hard time telling who was speaking or what their specific role was on the ship. I do remember one character having a deep Scottish accent, but that’s about it. The only two other characters that made much of an impression were Sally Fowler, the niece of an imperial senator and Horace Bury, a trader and merchant who is tasked with establishing trade relations with the Moties. Nevertheless, none of the characters come off as particularly likable or sympathetic. The humans spend most of their time arguing whether or not to destroy the Motie race completely, while the Moties themselves spend their time either following around their human counterparts or scheming to keep their true nature hidden from them.

The Mote in God’s Eye Review: The one redeeming factor that I found was in the eventual revelation of the Motie’s secret, and why they felt like they couldn’t reveal it to the humans. While I won’t give the secret away, I will say that it presents a really unique picture of a species that has evolved (and devolved) in a way that is different than humanity while at the same time sharing eerie similarities. I’m not going to say that this book isn’t for everyone. There may well be plenty of people who find it exciting and illuminating (I guess there has to be if it’s this far up on the list). I’m just giving my opinion that the books shortcomings and faults far outweigh its positive aspects. At the end of the day, I read for enjoyment, and The Mote in God’s Eye didn’t provide enough of that to make it worth the time it took to read.

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September 6, 2010

Posted in Alien Contact, Hard Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

#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

Posted in Empires, Religion, Social Science Fiction, Uncategorized, World Building | 8 Comments

#27 – Speaker for the Dead Summary – Orson Scott Card

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Speaker for the Dead is the sort-of sequel to the #1 book on this list, Ender’s Game, although the books share very little in terms of themes, setting and characters, except for the main character. And while this follow up is not as instantly memorable or revelatory as its predecessor, it is still a fascinating story in its own right and a worthy follow up to one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time. Judging solely by the cover of the book, you’d think that it would include as many high speed space fights and action packed adventures as the first book. In reality, the book leans much more towards the philosophical and contemplative. Most of the characters, including Ender, are psychologically damaged and dealing with extreme sadness and guilt. The events in the novel are fueled by the characters’ desires to make up for past failures and regain their own humanity. This is not a light read by any sense of the imagination, but it is one that I recommend nonetheless.

Speaker for the Dead Summary: Set nearly 3,000 years after the events of the first novel, ‘Speaker’ continues the story of Andrew Wiggin (still only 30 years old due to relativistic space travel) as he assumes the role of “Speaker for the Dead,” a quasi-religious figure who travels around the galaxy performing eulogies for people who have died in the hopes of illuminating the “Truth” of their lives. Ender is summoned to a planet called Lusitania to “Speak” for the xenologer (alien anthropologist) Pipo who died at the hands of the Pequeninos, a race of sentient beings that are the only other intelligent species that mankind has come into contact with since their disastrous encounter with the Formics thousands of years prior. While Pipo’s death is particularly gruesome, the alien nature of the Pequeninos (along with the lessons learned from the xenocide of the Buggers) indicates that the murder may not have been as malicious as it seemed.

As Ender begins to collect information for The Speaking, he starts to learn more (and become more interested in the Pequeninos), eventually making contact with them in violation of the law. After learning more about the killing of Pipo and the reason behind his vivisection, he attempts to form a treaty with them so that they might live in peace with the humans. When the Starways Congress finds out about the breach of security, they immediately recall all humans from the planet, causing them to form a united rebellion.

Speaker for the Dead Review: Readers hoping for a continuation of the story told in Ender’s Game will be severely disappointed by Speaker (for that, see Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon). But those who are interested in following Card to the logical conclusions and consequences of the first novel will be rewarded with a richly imagined story that serves as a form of redemption and release for Ender as he is finally able to rid himself of the burden of his xenocide. In essence, he is being given a second chance at establishing a relationship with an alien species built through trust and understanding rather than fear and violence. Card himself has said that Ender’s Game was written mainly as a prologue to Speaker, and even though that novel received much more critical acclaim, I can see where he might of thought of it as a prelude to the real themes he wanted to discuss in the second novel. Either way, you can’t go wrong with any of the books in this series in my opinion.

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September 3, 2010

Posted in Alien Contact, Uncategorized, World Building | 1 Comment

#28 – Jurassic Park Review – Michael Crichton

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Jurassic Park
Coming Soon.

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#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

Posted in Dystopia, Social Science Fiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

#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

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