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

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

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary

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

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

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

Stranger in a Strange Land Quotes

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

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

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September 25, 2010

1984 Review – George Orwell

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This is another novel that I’d been meaning to read since I was young but only just recently got around to. I knew what the basic premise was, and I was familiar with plenty of the concepts that surrounded the book (Big Brother, ThoughtCrime and the use of the adjective Orwellian to describe an oppressive, totalitarian state), but I hadn’t actually sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

When I finally did, I was blown away. No other book that I’ve read even comes close to the constant level of dread, anxiety, claustrophobia and fear that 1984 is able to sustain. From the opening paragraph you can feel the main character’s feverish need to rebel against his oppression, as well as the impending sense of doom and fatalism he feels in the knowledge that he will mostly likely be caught and punished for his transgressions.

1984 Summary

If you don’t already know the basic plot, 1984 tells the story of middle-class bureaucrat Winston Smith in the fictional super-state of Oceania – a nation controlled entirely by the ruling Ingsoc party and its figurehead dictator: BIG BROTHER. Needless to say, Big Brother controls all aspects of life in Oceania, from where people

live, work and eat to the most intimate details of people’s personal lives (including their thoughts). Operating in a surveillance state in which ubiquitous telescreens keep watch over the population at all times, the mere thought of rebellion or disobedience is considered a crime punishable by death (or worse). It’s in this climate of fear and paranoia that Winston tries to assert his individuality and independence.

Winston finds a kindred spirit in Julia, a colleague at the Ministry of Truth, who at first seems to conform to the rigid ideals of the party but who eventually reveals herself to bea fellow libertine with a history of promiscuous behavior. Their secret love affair is a tender respite from the constant gloom and degradation of their daily lives – although the constant threat of detection looms large throughout. Along with their secret meetings, the pair also become interested in learning more about the mysterious rebel organization The Brotherhood (whose leader Emmanuel Goldstein is said to be an early member of the Party – and who is now Public Enemy #1). Their meeting with one of the Brotherhood’s supposed leaders marks a turning point in their rebellion.

1984 Review

The sheer visceral impact of the book’s not so subtle implications and warnings of the risks of unchecked totalitarianism and government surveillance do nothing to distract us from our intense sympathy for Winston and the emotional and psychological torment that he is forced to endure at the hands of the Party for transgressions that seem, to us, to be the basic rights of any human being. And even though the temptation is to think that this type of society could never really exist, even a cursory look back at the political landscape of the 20th century will reveal multiple instances of societies and regimes that foreshadow this type of manipulation and control.

While 1984 might not be a light read, it is still a powerful, engrossing book that has lost none of the impact that it had when it was first published in 1949.

1984 Quotes

“From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.”1984 Movie: A film version of 1984 was produced (released conveniently in 1984) that starred John Hurt as Winston Smith. The film got generally good reviews upon its release and adheres relatively faithfully to Orwell’s original text.

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September 26, 2010

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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While the genre of Science Fiction isn’t particularly known for its sense of humor, the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams is a prime example of how the format’s unique characteristics can be used for humorous effect.

With droll British humor and an absurdist streak to match anyone in the Galaxy, Adams is able to bring us a thrilling adventure through time and space that not only provides some genuine chuckles (maybe even guffaws) along the way, but also presents us with an awe inspiring picture of the universe (as well as an Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

Hitchhiker’s Guide Summary

Following the adventures of Arthur Dent as he tries to survive (and comprehend) the strange vastness of the universe after Earth is unceremoniously destroyed to make way for an interstellar expressway, the first novel in the series also introduces the reader to a motley cast of characters, including Ford Prefect (a humanoid looking alien who accompanies Arthur on most of his travels), Tricia McMillan (Arthur’s love interest and a fellow earthling who was also able to escape Earth’s destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy) and the super computer Deep Thought (who is tasked with discovering the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life).

While the first book deals primarily with Dent accompanying Zaphod and the others on a quest to find the legendary planet of Magrathea, subsequent books (and plays, movies and comic books) help to expand the universe even further.

Hitchhiker’s Guide Review

Although most fans probably identify the series most closely with the 6 main books, the Guide originally started off as a comedy radio series that was broadcast by the BBC, the first parts of which eventually became the novel. That makes sense, as the book does have a slightly episodic feel to it. Besides the books and

radio series, it has also been adapted as a series of comic books, a TV series, a computer game, and even a 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and even the sequel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy or enthusiasm to keep going any further. Maybe I just got a little tired of the increasingly fantastical, tongue in cheek nature of the plot and characters. Maybe I just have a hard time appreciating British humor (wait, that can’t be it…Red Dwarf is one of my favorite shows of all time). Either way, if you’re a fan of science fiction or humor or absurdist farce, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a must read. Just remember two things: Don’t forget your towel…..and Don’t Panic!

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Quotes

“This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Restaurant at the End of the Universe | Life, The Universe and Everything | Mostly Harmless

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September 27, 2010

#90 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Roadside PicnicJust when you think that all of the possible science fiction plots have been written, you come across a book like ‘Roadside Picnic’ that makes you realize how varied and diverse this genre can be.

This is an alien visitation novel without the aliens, a first contact story without the ‘contact,’ and a story of strange and wondrous possibilities that only seem to lead to death and despair. The heroes in the book aren’t noble scientists trying to understand an advanced culture for the benefit of humanity, they’re working class stiffs just trying to survive and provide for their families.

And while some have tried to ascribe various political themes to the novel based on its unique publication history and censorship from the Soviet Government, the reality is that it’s actually more about the psychological and sociological implications of contact with advanced technology than any sort of political manifesto. While it may not be the type of novel that most readers are used to, this is a gripping little novel that poses some unsettling questions about human nature and offers few reassuring answers.

The novel begins 30 years after what is known as “The Visitation” – an event in which extraterrestrials landed on Earth in six different locations (known as the “Zones”) and then left before contact was made. In the aftermath of the visit, humans discovered that these Zones now contained strange (and in some cases extremely dangerous) phenomena and artifacts left by the aliens.

In order to study these “supernatural” artifacts and prevent them getting into the wrong hands, the Zones were walled off and can only be legally entered by scientific personnel designated by the UN and world governments. While the exact location of each of the Zones isn’t revealed, the story centers on one Zone in particular – somewhere in Soviet Russia.

When we first meet him, Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a 23 year old “Stalker” – an outlaw who travels into the Zone in order to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them on the black market. While he has a part-time job as working as a lab assistant for the institute studying the zone, the real money is in venturing into the Zone and bringing out these strange artifacts, which go by descriptive names such as Sponges, Black Sprays, Pins, Bracelets, Rattling Napkins and (my favorite) Death Lamps. In most cases, the purposes of these objects is unknown, although there are some (such as the Batteries which seem to be an unlimited power source) that may have real benefits.

But getting these artifacts out of the Zone isn’t a walk in the park. As we follow Red on an expedition into the Zone (and hear stories about the horrible deaths of other Stalkers), we soon realize that the Zones are hotbeds of dangerous phenomena that can cause horrific injuries, mutilations and death. These ‘phenomena’ have great names too, such as Witches Jelly, Burning Fluff, Exploding Rainbows and the Meat Grinder. We also learn that the offspring of Stalkers often have severe generic mutations.

As the book progresses, we follow Red as he loses friends in the Zone, gets married and has a daughter (who he lovingly refers to as “The Monkey” due to the layer of hair that covers her body), deals with various authority figures who are trying to clamp down on the illegal trading of artifacts, gets busted, gets out of jail and tries to rehabilitate himself. But seeing as though there’s no real industry in the area (and residents are forbidden to emigrate due to their exposure to the Zone), Red is forced to continue going back into the Zone in order to pay the bills.

And while Red is a rough and tumble kind of guy, we also see that he is a good man with good intentions who is fiercely loyal – even to a fault. The only thing that seems to offer any possibility of salvation is a mythical artifact known as the  “Golden Sphere” that supposedly grants wishes to whoever is standing in front of it. And it’s the hope of finding the Golden Sphere which compels Red to go back into the Zone one last time.

Apart from the human drama and the sympathy that we feel for Red as he struggles to survive and provide for his family amidst a collection of shady politicians, greedy black marketers and double-crossing Stalkers, there’s also the compelling mystery and intrigue surrounding the Zones, the reasons for the Alien’s visit, the purpose of the artifacts and the potential for both positive and negative effects on humanity as a whole.

What I loved about the Strugatsky brothers approach is that they rarely explain the artifacts and phenomena in any real detail, instead leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to determine how they look and what they’re used for. And their ability to ratchet up the tension and suspense during Red’s trips into the Zone make this a gripping ride throughout. If you’re looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, I think that you’ll enjoy Roadside Picnic as much as I did.

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Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

A lot of readers may note the similarities between John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (and to a lesser extent Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War). But while those comparisons are certainly appropriate, they shouldn’t take anything away from the fact that Scalzi’s unique take on military service in the future is an incredibly mature (pun intended) novel that sparkles with enough inventiveness and gusto to be be considered a classic in its own right.

At turns funny, touching, horrifying, and sad, it manages to paint a picture of mankind’s place in the universe that is both strikingly original and frighteningly plausible. Yes, like the two novels mentioned above, it follows a solider in the future from fresh recruit to seasoned veteran. Yes, it touches on the absurdity and futility of fighting continuous wars against enemies we hardly understand. But it also offers a number of fresh new ideas and perspectives that help set it apart from most other military science fiction currently being written.

Old Man’s War Summary

John Perry is a retired advertising copywriter whose wife passed away 10 years prior. At the ripe old age of 75, his choices are either to slowly die alone on the backwater world of Earth or… join the army! Fearing the inevitable decline of old age and starting to feel the aches and pains of a body nearly used up, he opts to join the Colonial Defense Forces, mankind’s military and political ambassador to the rest of the galaxy. As Perry is put through a condensed form of boot camp, we learn that the galaxy is full of other life forms, each of which are competing for the limited supply of habitable worlds.

In order to ensure the future of humanity and prevent hostiles races from muscling us out of our share of the galactic real estate, the CDF is forced to wage war on multiple fronts against multiple enemies; sometimes working to protect human colonies from invasion, other times assaulting and overtaking enemy colonies. To make matters even more complicated, the variety of potential enemy combatants and war zones are so varied that it makes it nearly impossible for soldiers to learn and adapt from one battle to the next.

So why would they want 75 year-olds? Aren’t soldiers supposed to be young and strong? It turns out that the state of their current body isn’t an issue, because their consciousnesses are going to be transferred into a completely new, highly modified version of their 20 year old selves (taken from their own DNA). Not only are their new bodies younger and in better shape than they ever were in real life, they have also been heavily modified by the latest in CDF technology to enhance their fighting ability.

From their new nanotech “smartblood” that carries more oxygen and coagulates quicker, to their BrainPal, a neural interface that allows them to access data and communicate silently with their fellow soldiers, everything about their new bodies has been designed to maximize their chance of survival. Speaking of which, because of the variety and fierceness of their enemies, the survival rate of CDF soldiers after two years of service is dismal.

That still leaves the question of why they value older citizens to receive these new super-bodies. The answer to that is explained to Perry in boot camp. Basically, since the CDF are fighting to protect the future of humanity, they need soldiers who have a strong connection to Earth and who have, over the course of their lives, developed the wisdom and compassion that comes with having loved someone other than themselves (children, grandchildren, etc).

Young soldiers are too self-centered and myopic to understand the importance of the mission, and don’t have the same sense of loyalty and service to their own race. But as Perry starts participating in more battles and killing more and more faceless (and sometimes poorly armed) enemies, he starts to question his own loyalty in the face of what seems like such senseless violence. With each successive battle, he senses himself becoming less and less human; his connection to Earth and his former life fading in the background. But an unexpected meeting with someone from his previous life helps change all that.

Old Man’s War Review

One of the underlying themes of Old Man’s War is the tenuous connection between one’s body and mind and how that affects your personal sense of self and identify. How much does having a new body change who you are and how you think of yourself? What is it about someone that makes them intrinsically human?

Thankfully, the book doesn’t try to come to a specific conclusion or make a grand statement to answer those questions. But it does give us enough to think about so that we care about John Perry’s situation and the conflicting emotions that he has to deal with. In addition to the fun new technology and big moral questions that the book introduces, it also features some of the best dialogue, sharpest humor, and efficient writing that I can remember reading in a Sci-Fi novel. Most novelists in the genre aren’t exactly know for their style, so it’s refreshing to see a writer who has an ear for how people actually speak.

So if you’re looking for a Sci-Fi novel with substance AND style to spare, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. And whether you’re old or young, you won’t be disappointed.

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#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