#84 – The Chrysalids Review – John Wyndham

The ChrysalidsReading about the persecution of any group of people can be a harrowing and heart-rending experience. But when that group of people happen to be children who have done nothing to deserve it except for be born slightly different than the accepted “norm” for their society, the experience is even more devastating. In The Chrysalids, John Wyndham has created a stark and moving portrait of a world gripped by the fear of mutation; whose leaders are convinced that anything that doesn’t conform to their concept of physical normality is not in the image of God, and thus is the work of the devil. What makes the book so successful (like many Science Fiction novels) is that, while the action takes place a thousand years in the future on an Earth still recovering from some sort of nuclear holocaust, the fear and paranoia that inspires the fundamentalist spirit and the persecution of the “other” is something that can be seen and felt today in a hundred different places. By putting a sympathetic face on the struggle to exist in a world that demands obedience and conformity is what truly makes this novel a powerful tale.

The Chrysalids Summary: The setting of the novel is two-thousand years in the future in what is said to be the Labrador region of northern Canada. While the area is relatively warm and hospitable, it is clear that the world is still recovering from the after effects of a powerful man-made disaster, often referred to as the “Tribulation.” Vague references are made to “The Old People,” a technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed during the Tribulation for some unspecified reason. The effects of the unknown cataclysm can be seen in the occasional physical mutations of both plants and animals in the region, all of which are quickly rooted out and destroyed in order to avoid the wrath of god from coming again. The frontier-style inhabitants of the Waknuk community practice a strict adherence to this law, with mutations seen as “Blasphemies.” They even employ a town inspector to verify the purity of both man and beast. But while the land around Waknuk is able to produce a fair amount of healthy crops, we are told in bits and pieces about an area called The Fringes in which mutations are the norm rather than the exception.

The narrator of the story is a 10 year old boy named David, a kind but questioning child whose father is one of the religious leaders of the community and a zealot when it comes to identifying and rooting out mutations. At the beginning of the novel we learn that David has been having strange dreams about a giant, shining city with horseless carts, even though  these things supposedly don’t exist anymore. As is often the case with strange dreams in books, his visions foreshadow an important development later in the novel.

Although he has been indoctrinated since birth about the evils of deviations, he begins to question his religious training after becoming friends with a young girl named Sophie, who he eventually learns was born with six toes on each foot. After Sophie is discovered and hunted down by the authorities, David is shocked to find out that humans with deviations are either killed or forced to fend for themselves in the Fringes. The rationale is that since they are not in the image of god, they do not have souls (where does that sound familiar?). But while his concern for Sophie is genuine, he also has to deal with another troubling fact: he himself is also “different,” albeit not in a way that is easily distinguishable. Through a subtle and ingenious technique, Wyndham slowly reveals that David and a number of other children in the community have telepathic abilities that allow them to understand the “thought-shapes” of each other.

While David and his friends’ secret is safe for a while, their unique powers are eventually discovered and the book turns its focus to their escape and survival. While the last act isn’t nearly as powerful as the rest of the book, Wyndham is such a fantastic story teller that he gets us invested in the safety and survival of these unique children (as well as the punishment of their persecutors) to such a great extent. At first glance, the themes in the book are similar to those in the X-men series, where people with fantastic powers are seen as threats to the establishment and are forced to either hide their abilities from society or battle for their lives. But in the hands of a brilliant writer like John Wyndham, these abnormalities and the persecution they engender are taken to tragic extremes that serve to highlight our own society’s perpetual tendency to scapegoat and terrorize any group of people that don’t fall neatly into our conception of what is pure and right. A light read it surely is not, but it’s tragic and moving in a way that most Science Fiction novels aren’t.

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

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

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Summary

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

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

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

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Review

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

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January 14, 2011

#60 – Ender’s Shadow Review – Orson Scott Card

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No other book series (other than maybe Foundation) has a larger presence on this list than Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. With the #1 (Ender’s Game), #27 (Speaker for the Dead) and now #60 entries in the top 100, it’s fair to say that it is one of the most popular series’ in all of science fiction. While some might argue that the Shadow books make up their own unique series, it’s hard to really separate the two in my mind. While the two parallel stories eventually diverge completely, the two linchpin novels tell basically the same story, just from the perspective of different characters. While Ender’s Game tells the story of Battle School and the Bugger War with Ender Wiggin at its center, Ender’s Shadow illuminates the back story of Ender’s right hand man Bean and follows him as he moves up through the ranks of Battle School to become an integral part of the team that eventually helps defeat the Bugger menace. What is so amazing about Card’s companion novel is that it manages to tell a story that we already know so well in a way that makes it seem fresh and exiting. Even though we already know the eventual outcome, the new insights that we get into the life and motivations of what was a minor character in the original novel help increase the richness of the story as a whole.

Ender’s Shadow Summary: Ender’s Shadow picks up the story of Bean, a diminutive homeless street urchin trying to survive in the crime ridden streets of Rotterdam in 2170. Having escaped from a genetic engineering laboratory as an infant (where they apparently did experiments to increase intelligence), Bean’s primary focus is on survival (meaning food and protection from the ruthless child gangs that roam the streets). Although he eventually manages to fall in with a gang that is able to get food from a local soup kitchen, his access to that food is controlled by a sociopathic bully named Achilles who torments Bean and eventually murders one of his closest friends. Luckily, Bean’s brilliance and creativity are recognized by one of the nuns at the soup kitchen who is secretly recruiting gifted children to help fight the Bugger War. Bean is then taken to Battle School where he meets Ender and begins his training in Military strategy and tactics along with other gifted children. This first section of the novel serves to illustrate Bean’s amazing ability to survive in the harshest conditions imaginable due to his advanced intellect, something that will eventually set him apart from all of the other students at Battle School.

By the time Bean gets to Battle School, the legend of the brilliant Ender Wiggin has already begun to form, and Bean takes a concerted interest in learning as much as he can about the boy who will eventually go on to lead the human fleet against the Buggers. Along the way, we are made aware of some interesting facts that weren’t disclosed in the original novel, such as the fact that it was Bean (not the commanding adults) who created the Dragon Army of misfits and new recruits for Ender to lead and mold into fighting form. We also learn that the adults chose Bean as Ender’s replacement should anything happen to Ender. While some may accuse Card of re-writing history here, I personally don’t think that anything he introduces in Ender’s Shadow in any way takes away from the power of Game.  All he really does is to show that Bean was actually a much more integral part of the story than we previously thought.

Ender’s Shadow Review: I think that one of the reasons that I liked Ender’s Shadow so much is the fact that Bean is a much more sympathetic character than Ender. While Ender grew up in a middle class family (with his main challenge in being a Third child), Bean is forced from a very early age (he’s 2 years old when we first meet him) to survive in a brutal world where most of the cards are stacked against him. The only advantage he has is his heightened intelligence and will to survive, both of which he uses in a coldly efficient manner. And while Ender is the hero that eventually goes on to defeat the Buggers, it is Bean who is able to see the reality of their situation – that the battle exercises are actually real battles with real Formics, something that Ender fails to realize until it’s too late.

Although Speaker for the Dead may be the true sequel to Ender’s Game, I think that Bean’s story may actually be a more fitting addendum to the original novel – even if they recount many of the same events. So if you found Speaker to be too removed and distant from the themes and motifs of the first novel, I’d recommend giving the Shadow series a try. Besides succeeding as its own stand alone tale, it brings added depth and insight into a story that many of us have known and loved for years.

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July 26, 2011

#89 – The Postman David Brin

David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman is an odd sort of science fiction tale. Instead of focusing on how civilization can fall to such a sorry state, it examines one man’s unlikely role in helping to bring hope and a sense of purpose back to a society trying desperately to maintain a sense of order and meaning in a world on the brink of total collapse. The power of symbols is a theme that runs throughout the book, and one that helps frame society’s desire to return (or at least cling on) to the safe, comfortable and reassuring memories from their past. Throughout the book, Brin does a good job of reminding us that civilization isn’t just made up of people, but also of shared ideas and belief systems that help shape how we communicate and interact with the world. By showing how powerful a simple idea can be (even one that is based on a lie), he seems to be saying that the power to heal and rebuild comes from reaffirming our shared humanity rather than closing ourselves off from the outside world and protecting what’s ours. If that all sounds a bit heady and philosophical – don’t worry. The book has enough narrative momentum and genuine intrigue to keep you excited and entertained throughout.

Although it takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States, it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what happened or how society came to be in such terrible shape. There’s no plague to deal with or nuclear fallout to fear. What we get are bits and pieces about the destruction of the major cities and the electromagnetic pulses that supposedly shut down all of the world’ electronics – essentially returning civilization to a pre-industrial state. We first meet our hero Gordon Krantz somewhere in the foothills of Oregon.  We don’t get a lot of background about Gordon. Apparently he traveled west from Minnesota, although Brin never explains exactly why. He seems to be roaming wherever he can find food and shelter, meeting random people along the way and generally just trying to survive. When Gordon’s camp is looted by a roving gang of thieves, he’s forced to take refuge in a broken down postal van for warmth. Having lost most of his clothes, he takes the postal uniform off the deceased former owner of the van, as well as a bag of unopened mail that he finds. When he brings the bag to the nearest town hoping to barter for food and shelter, he is forced to pretend that he is actual a postman from the “Restored United States of America” in order to gain entrance to the town.

But what starts out as a lie made in desperation, begins to turn into something much more. Cutoff from the rest of civilization, the remaining population in Oregon have turned to a feudal system of government, with well-armed despots ruling with an iron fist to help communities ration food and services (and provide protect against bands of marauding “hypersurvivalists” known as Holnists). Since no one has heard anything from state or national governments for over 20 years, they assume (correctly) that they’re alone and have to fend for themselves. So when Gordon shows up claiming to be from the “Restored United States of America” and looking to re-establish postal routes in the reason, it gives the people hope – not just that the U.S. still has a functioning government, but that society itself is starting to recover and get back to normal. While Gordon is initially hesitant to continue the fraud, he starts to see the positive effect that the deception has on the residents of the communities he visits. Hoping to capitalize on people’s enthusiasm, Gordon starts appointing postmasters in each community in charge of setting up mail service between the various communities.

As Gordon moves further north in Oregon, he meets communities who have struggled to maintain hope in their own separate ways, including one in Corvallis that apparently has access to a sentient machine known as the Cyclops who was able to survive the electromagnetic pulse. Although the machine doesn’t actually work anymore, the community leaders try to keep up the illusion that it is in order to maintain hope and order among their people. But no matter where he goes, he keeps being confronted by the spectre of the Holnist hypersurvivalists. Aggressive, violent, and seemingly without remorse, they have been raiding villages through the area for supplies, slaves, etc. While the communities have done their best to resist, the Holnists seem to be taking more and more as time goes on. As the de facto symbol of the “Restored United States of America,” Gordon is enlisted to help lead the resistance against the hypersurvivalist in a last ditch attempt to stave off the destruction of what little civilization is left.

Brin does a wonderful job of keeping the pacing brisk and the stakes high. While the story lacks a lot of the familiar trappings of the science fiction genre (cool gadgets, alien species, etc.), it still manages to capture the feeling that this is a world that could possibly exist if given the right circumstances (which is what all sci-fi is trying to do). The issue of what civilization becomes if the normal structures and rules are tossed out the window is something that has been covered in a lot of different books. But by focusing on how a society rebuilds after a fall, Brin is able to offer a unique take on a familiar tale. In demonstrating the power of symbols and their ability to bring people together for a common cause, he shows how an idea (even if it’s a lie) can have an even greater impact than the person who creates it.

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Valis – Philip K Dick

While most of Philip K. Dick’s novels reflect some aspects of his unusual life, experiences and personality, it’s VALIS where Dick the author and Dick the character really start to bleed together. As the first book in what’s known as the VALIS Trilogy (incomplete at the time of his death), VALIS is based on Dick’s experiences in the Spring of 1974 when he began having religious visions (exegesis) that purportedly served to reveal secret truths about the nature of god, reality and the unseen forces that control our lives. According to Dick, these visions revealed the existence of an alien probe circling the Earth


#94 – Cities in Flight – James Blish

A lot of science fiction stories claim to be epic in scope. But few come close to the size and spectacle of James Blish’s Cities in Flight. Beginning in the near future and culminating in the destruction of the known universe, this four-volume series (published as a single volume omnibus in 1970) spans thousands of years, hundreds of protagonists, multiple sentient races, and even hints at a scientific explanation for the existence of god in creating new universes. If that’s not “epic,” I don’t know what is. And while the individual stories themselves can be sometimes drag a bit, and the amount of characters can often make it confusing as to whose doing what and for what reason, the sheer audaciousness of Blish’s vision of the future and the various technologies that shape mankind’s path more than make up for any narrative shortcomings.

The first volume, They Shall Have Stars, starts in the near future. With the Cold War still raging and civil liberties in decline all over the world, scientific progress has stalled and Western Civilization seems to be stagnating. In secret, Bliss Wagoner, the Head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight has been supporting research into “Fringe” scientific theories as a last grasp attempt at spurring innovation and growth. One particular project, a bridge made of ice on Jupiter, leads to two unique discoveries. First, the discovery of properties that allow for the manipulation of gravity – which eventually leads to the development of technology that allows for faster-than-light travel (known as a “spindizzy”). Second, the discovery of an anti-agathic drug which helps stop aging. These two discoveries together finally make interstellar travel possible. While Wagoner is eventually tried for treason, his work sets the stage for everything that follows.

The next volume, A Life for the Stars, picks up years later as Spindizzy technology has been successfully developed to transport large objects through space. With Earth in a severe depression, whole cities have taken to the stars in hopes of finding work throughout the galaxy. The main character of this volume is Chris DeFord, a teenager who unwittingly catches a ride on the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania as it’s leaving Earth. These “Cities in Flight” are referred to frequently as “Okie” cities, referring to the Oklahoma residents who escaped the Dust Bowl in the 1940’s in search of work. After a series of adventures on Scranton, Chris eventually transfers to the larger and wealthier city of New York, where he meets Mayor Amalfi – a character who features prominently in the ensuing volumes. After helping successfully defuse a dangerous conflict, Chris is elevated to Resident status and made the City Manager of New York.

Earthman, Come Home continues Amalfi’s adventures as the head of New York, spanning almost 300 years (of relativistic time) and covering most of the galaxy. Over the course of the book they encounter an ‘Okie Jungle’ of economically collapsed cities, fend off a mythical alien threat to Earth, outwit a city of renegades, and outrun the Earth police. Eventually they find themselves hurtling out of the Milky Way into the Greater Magellanic Cloud and settle temporarily on a planet where they encounter and get the better of a group of renegades called IMT (Interstellar Master Traders).

The final volume, The Triumph of Time, finds the gang (now on a planet called He) undertaking the first intergalactic flight. During their journey, they discover that a collision of universes threatens to wipe out all life, and that a competing civilization has already realized this. The rest of the novel involves the Hevians racing to beat the other civilization to the singularity in order to potentially manipulate the new universes that will result from the collision.

While a lot of the concepts and technical specifics of cosmology and intergalactic travel went waaaaaaaaay over my head, the ideas and compelling story helped me get past some of the more incomprehensible moments in the book. I’ve always been a sucker for “Big Ideas” so you might not be as forgiving as I am (unless you’re a cosmologist). But if you’re not a cosmologist and you’re down for a little incomprehension, James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a fun flight of fancy filled with interesting ideas about the future of humanity (and the universe we live in).