Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Kate Wilhelm
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Kate Wilhelm’s writing is subtle and understated. It grows on you gradually.

This story sucked me in so slowly, in fact, that at first I thought it was going to be boring.

Also, the first part of the book, which takes up about a quarter of its total length, is basically an introduction to the rest. So many major events happen and so much time passes during that first section that it seemed like too much; I thought I was never going to be able to get into any of the characters. I would just start to get attached to one and then they were gone.

The later sections of the book go at a better speed, however. And for them to work as well as they do, I guess the first part has to cover that much ground.

This is a post-apocalyptic story in which we have destroyed our environment with radiation and toxic chemicals. All the pollution and contamination cause people to become infertile and, over time, Earth’s human population gradually dies off and dwindles down to almost nothing. And, to top it off, another ice age begins and glaciers start crawling all the way down into Maryland.

Only one very organized, very wealthy family in the Shenandoah Valley continues to reproduce – by cloning themselves. They saw the writing on the wall, trained themselves on the necessary technology, and built themselves a secret compound complete with hospitals, laboratories, incubators, schools, and dormitories.

This is all very well and good for them, the saviors of the human race, but then something creepy starts to happen. Instead of producing one child at a time, the family scientists begin to produce sets of identical children. At first there are twos and threes and eventually they get up to sevens and eights.

The sibling sets start to discriminate against oddball “singles” with increasing viciousness. And, at the same time, the sets grow progressively more and more group-focused until they are completely dependent on their clone brothers or sisters to function. They are unable to think originally or creatively on their own.

Ironically, this means that the clones themselves are headed for extinction, since they cannot invent new technology or repair their equipment when it breaks, much less adapt to the approaching glaciers. And they have ostracized the single children, the only ones who can do these things.

Eventually, though, the clones are in turn saved by one of the few remaining “regularly-bred” humans – and the human race is (ta-da!) preserved to start over again the original way.

Okay, maybe that ending is a little too neat. But, overall, I liked the book. In particular, I thought that Wilhelm did a good job of taking an idyllic setting and a group of happy fresh-faced youths and gradually making them into something more and more sinister and unpleasant. Something almost as sinister and unpleasant as… junior high school.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Science Fiction Themes: A Case Study

Nebula- and Hugo-winning novels that I have reviewed so far and the themes they explore, arranged into a lovely chart.

Click to enlarge.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: Speaker for the Dead

Orson Scott Card
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

SPOILER ALERT (for Ender’s Game)

In the introduction to my edition of Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card said that he never meant to write Ender’s Game. He had intended to make Ender’s childhood a relatively small part of the beginning of Speaker. But when he got into it, he realized that Ender’s war-gaming backstory was involved enough to deserve its own novel, so he split that part off into Ender’s Game, making that book a prequel to this one, which was the book he really wanted to write in the first place.

I think Card’s priorities were right on. I liked Ender’s Game quite a bit but this is an even better book. Not many people are able to write something so touching and sensitive without being trite or cloying, but Card was up to the task.

Before getting into the plot of Speaker, a brief review of the events detailed in Ender’s Game are in order: Thinking he is only running a computer simulation, a teenage military prodigy named Ender Wiggin brilliantly wipes out the “buggers,” the only other known sentient species in the universe, with whom we are at war.

Ender defeated the buggers due less to his tactical genius than to his ability to understand others. He grew to know his enemy well enough to intimately understand their weaknesses. This insight allowed him to learn how to kill the buggers, but it also meant that he could no longer bring himself to hate them.

Ender’s victory over the buggers makes him a hero. But when he finds out what he has done to them, his guilt wrecks him inside. He goes to the buggers’ home world and finds a cocoon containing the very last remaining bugger hive queen. He secretly takes the cocoon with him, hoping to place it on a hospitable planet one day, once all the humans have finally gotten over their fear and hatred of the buggers.

In the meantime, the hive queen in her cocoon is able to communicate telepathically with Ender. In an act of contrition, Ender writes a history of the queen and her species. This book, The Hive Queen, is published anonymously – the author is listed as “Speaker for the Dead” – and it is distributed across the populated universe. It makes humans understand the buggers so fully that they undergo a guilt-fueled reversal of opinion. The formerly-revered Ender Wiggin, Savior of Humanity, becomes reviled and hated as Ender Wiggin, Xenocide. Nobody has any idea that the Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead are actually the same person.

Speaker for the Dead becomes a model for many people. The anonymous author even inspires the growth of a sort of new religion, in which Speakers are called by the living to research and report – warts and all – on the life of someone who has died, in the hope that it will increase understanding all around.

Ender goes underground to escape the celebrity, both the good and the bad. By traveling at light speed from planet to planet, he ages only a few years while human society ages hundreds of years. By the time Ender is 35 years old, 3,000 years have passed in real time. He ends up on Trondheim, a planet of snow and ice, where he goes by his given name (Andrew) and starts teaching at an institute that trains Speakers of the Dead.

This is the point where Speaker of the Dead begins. The action is centered on the planet Lusitania. In colonizing Lusitania, a group of humans have discovered the third known sentient species in the universe, the “piggies.” The piggies appear quite primitive, so the humans establish strict rules, limiting contact to avoid influencing their development. Unfortunately, however, Pipo, one of the xenologers whose job it is to study the piggies, ends up getting killed by them in a horribly gruesome manner – dissected, with his stomach opened up and his organs strung out from his body across a hillside.

Pipo's young daughter Novinha sends out a call for a Speaker to "speak," or report on, her father's life and death. Ender takes the call himself, but he is several light years away. By the time he arrives on Lusitania, only two weeks have passed for him but 22 years have passed for everyone on the planet. In the meantime, not only has Novinha’s abusive husband Marcão died, but her friend Libo, the new xenologer, has been killed by the piggies in the same way as his father Pipo – and Novinha’s children have called for someone to speak the deaths of both of them too.

Ender researches the three men’s lives and deaths and uncovers a lot of painful and/or really cool truths not only about them but also about the colony, the piggies, and the planet’s strange biology. When he speaks the deaths, it is like a root canal to the colonists, exposing all their secrets and faults. But it is also a release and a relief for them – especially Novinha and her children, who had been living with lies and guilt their whole lives.

Although I enjoyed the story of the colony and the piggies a lot, the real strength of the book is the character of Ender, his tremendous capacity to understand those who are different from himself, and the message he carries about seeing the shades of gray in everyone.

This understanding is what made him want to be a Speaker. He knows that no one is as all-good or all-bad as people want them to be. He doesn’t glorify anyone when he speaks, and he doesn’t vilify them either; he tells the truth so the living will know them as they really were. He shows everyone that Marcão is not 100% bad, and that Pipo and Libo are not 100% good, even though that is what most people wanted to hear.

The great thing, though, is that Card doesn’t make Ender into some drippy, self-righteous spiritualist. Ender knows that sometimes it’s necessary to be threatening or cruel or to use physical force. And he makes mistakes and has doubts, just like everybody else. Almost everyone in the universe regards Ender as an extreme: genius, hero, devil, Xenocide. But he knows that he is just a human being trying to do what he thinks is right.

The one part of the story that makes me a little impatient concerns Valentine, Ender’s sister and his only real companion on his galactic travels. I know Valentine is important to Ender, as the only person who has really loved him all his life, but I never got interested in her or the political machinations she pursues.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Twin Cities Edition) - New Day Rising (Hüsker Dü)

There were many great bands coming out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in the late 70's and early 80's. And sure, there was Prince, but frankly, I wasn't paying much attention to that stuff at the time. Most people I knew were singing the praises of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements, but personally, I preferred the more punk-inspired antics of Hüsker Dü.

I was first exposed to their music in '85 when I found their album Zen Arcade at my friend Adam's place, and while it made a big impression on me (a punk band doing a double concept album!!), it wasn't until I heard New Day Rising that I got into their music more seriously.

It was really the first time that I heard what I would refer to as the melodic punk sound...a harsh guitar sound, but beautiful melodies. I guess these days, people call it pop punk. I loved the fact that these guys were also kind of ugly, and not at all in step with the indie world aesthetics of the time. Both the guitarist and he drummer were a little fat, and the bass player had this very un-punklike handlebar mustache! Not exactly eye candy. They truly didn't care. As good as the Replacements were (and they were very good), to me they were still pretty boys getting attention partly for all the wrong reasons. Hüsker Dü, on the other hand, only had their music to rely on, and I think that made them a better band.

It wasn't until years later that I also found out that the two song writers and lead singers in the band were both gay. That made them even cooler in my eyes, and it made me look at all their lyrics in a somewhat different light. It was also a big lesson for me in terms of learning about homosexuality, and tearing down some of the stereotypes around that topic.

Another reason I love this album is because it really has two very distinctive styles of songwriting, and it really comes through on this record. Even if Bob Mould and Grant Hart had indistinguishable voices, I could still listen to the music and say "this is a Bob song" or "this is a Grant song". They really were in many respects each other's biggest rival, à la Lennon/McCartney, and that rivalry I think substantially contributed to the high quality of the writing.

This album is packed - PACKED! - with great rock songs! From the strident sounds of Bob Mould's Gibson Flying V on the title track, to the great lyrics of "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill" and "Terms of Psychic Warfare", to other gems like "If I Told You", and "I Don't Know What You're Talking About" - it's hard to find any filler in this record.

To me, this was the band's zenith! They really peaked with this album, and I think they never quite surpassed the quality of the songwriting after that. Plus, it's their best album cover work, by far! The picture of those two dogs in the water is as iconic an image for me as those Raymond Pettibon's paintings on the Black Flag album covers.

For those who say that the 80's sucked musically, I say, as I once heard Henry Rollins say, "it depends on what altitude you were flying". Sure, there was plenty of really bad pop music, and godawful spandex metal, but there was also Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr....and Hüsker Dü.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Book Review: Gateway

Frederik Pohl
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The best thing about Gateway is the cool and unique setting. Frederik Pohl explores that setting with a relatively interesting story line – at least not one that seems like it was created half-heartedly just to show off the world he invented.

It is the relatively near future. During our exploration of nearby space, we have discovered a spaceport, which we call Gateway, that has been abandoned long ago by an alien species, who we call the Heechee.

The Heechee were technologically advanced and left behind an array of valuable artifacts, including spaceships with the capability for hyperspace travel. There are many of these ships still fueled up and docked at the spaceport’s gates. Everything is in perfect working order. It is like the Heechee just up and left one day, leaving everything running.

Conveniently, the Heechee appear to have been about our size and to have had similar environmental requirements, so it is possible for us to use their station and their ships in relative comfort.

The only catch is that we can’t read any of their instruction manuals or any of the indicators on any of their equipment. Everything we know about their technology we have learned from brute force experimentation – people getting into the ships, pressing a bunch of buttons and seeing what happens.

We have learned some very basic things. We know how to select a destination code and start the ships on their journey. We know that once the ship is started, it will not deviate from its pre-programmed course and it will automatically return to Gateway.

But we don’t know what the vast majority of the destination codes mean, so most of the time we don’t know where the ship is going. We don’t know how to program it to turn around or go somewhere else while it is in flight. We don’t know how to tell how long the voyage is going to be. And we don’t know whether or not the ship actually has enough fuel to get there.

So an industry has grown up around Gateway in which a corporation hires people to risk their lives flying the Heechee ships to where ever the ships might take them, and then gives them a share of the profits if they find something that is useful to the company (assuming they survive the trip).

Sometimes the ships end up in the middle of a supernova. Sometimes they run out of fuel and never come back. Sometimes the ships return with a dead crew whose food or oxygen ran out before the trip was over.

But sometimes the ships take the crew to a brand-new planet that is habitable or has a supply of valuable ore. Sometimes it takes them to a new Heechee port with still more artifacts. And sometimes the trip gives us more of a clue to the navigation system. When anything like that happens, it makes the crew very wealthy.

The main character, Bob Broadhead, is one of these pilots. He flew a couple small missions and then a third mission that made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but left him a traumatized wreck with nightmares and guilt that he can’t get rid of. The book starts with him in therapy (with a computerized therapist he calls Sigfrid von Shrink) after returning from this last trip. Through flashbacks and sessions with Sigfrid we gradually learn about Gateway and the Heechee and what happened to Bob to make him both so wealthy and so messed up.

Again, I think that the best part of the book is in the setting – the Gateway spaceport and the ships that can set people up for life or kill them in any number of horrible ways. Bob’s story is fine but not quite as strong as the central idea.

And I do have to admit that although I can see that Bob’s third mission was scientifically very important, I don’t understand why it was of concrete monetary value to a corporation. Bob explained it to us but I still didn’t really get it.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Quick: What Is This Candidate's Party Affiliation?

A friend of a friend is a supporter of somebody named Tom Campbell who is running for U.S. Senate in California. Via Facebook, I clicked over to Campbell’s campaign website, and every page in the site is awash in Democratic blue. For example, here is Campbell’s logo:

I had to hunt high and low through this azure-hued site before I could confirm that Campbell is, indeed, a Republican. Unless I missed it, there’s nothing to that effect on his Bio page, or anywhere else, save for the third-party headlines reprinted on the Media page.

Nothing wrong with this, I suppose. It’s not like blue is a registered trademark of the Democratic Party, and he’s clearly decided that it won’t pay to trumpet his party affiliation. If he manages to hold off Carly Fiorina and capture the GOP nomination to face Barbara Boxer in the general election, it will be interesting to see if his branding changes at all.
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