Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Stand on Zanzibar is set in the 2010s which, in 1968, was the relatively near future. The world has become severely overpopulated, which has serious effects on everyday life. Internal combustion engines are banned in most large cities and have been replaced by fuel-cell and fly-wheel vehicles. Almost everyone has to share housing, even the rich. In jails, prisoners are tranquilized and stacked on bunk beds, one on top of another, which can be pulled in and out of cells like drawers in a filing cabinet.

Rich countries have enacted various forms of eugenic legislation to control birth rates. In the US, for example, you are forbidden to have children if you have genes for certain hereditary conditions like hemophilia, diabetes, phenylketonuria, or color-blindness.


There are two semi-intertwined main plots, each centered on one of the two somewhat asocial main characters, Donald Hogan and Norman House. Donald and Norman are roommates and are also probably as close to being friends as would be possible for either of them.

Norman is black, Muslim, and a VP at General Technics, the world’s largest technology firm. His company sends him to Beninia, a remote African country, to work out a deal to allow GT to mine Beninia’s natural resources before its neighboring countries can invade and do so. While there, Norman finds that Beninians are very strange – no wars, no murders, not even lost tempers – and he sets himself to learning why.

Donald is white, Christian, and a spy for the US government. He gets sent to Yatakang, a remote Asian country, which has announced that it is developing the technology to clone embryos, select out the ones with undesirable traits, and then implant the best in any woman. This may have disastrous consequences for governments as it will allow anyone to get around eugenics laws and have a child. Donald’s mission is to either expose their claim as a fraud or, if it is not a fraud, to make it not come to pass.


Reading Zanzibar is a little like reading Shakespeare or A Clockwork Orange in that it is pretty hard to follow at first. Brunner creates a whole new vocabulary for this future dystopia that you have to get used to. Some of the new terms are abbreviations (“dicty” for “addict”); amalgamations (“Afram” for “African-American”); free-associations (“codder,” from “codpiece,” for “man”); or just plain slang (“shiggy” for “girl”).

But if you persevere, by the time you’re halfway through the book, you can read and understand a sentence like “Sheeting hole, Frank, I’ll never forgive those bleeders!” without batting an eye.

Even the table of contents is wacky. Chapters are listed not in chronological order but by category, of which there are four:

“Continuity” (the main plot)
“Context” (explanations of the main plot)
“Tracking with Closeups” (side stories about minor characters)
“The Happening World” (jumbles of ads, gossip, conversations, and news)

The four types of chapters are interwoven throughout the book. It is a little chaotic, but that is part of what Zanzibar is all about. The combination keeps the plot going, helps you understand it, provides detail and color, and gives you an idea of the volume of stimuli constantly bombarding the populace.


Stand on Zanzibar is similar to Neuromancer in many ways. It has a trippy style and a unique vocabulary. It has advanced technology such as fuel-cell cars and internet-like, real-time global media. It has widespread use of hard-core drugs. It has a massive self-aware computer that controls many everyday operations for all of humanity worldwide. And it even has a woman with metal eyes (in this case, chromed contact lenses).

The main difference (aside from the fact that Zanzibar came out 16 years earlier) is that it is less about the self-aware central computer and more about humans coping with each other in a crazy, overcrowded world. Brunner is bitingly sarcastic and cynical and, at the same time, handles complex issues with a lot of sensitivity and understanding.

Brunner’s main focus is how the loss of privacy and property affects us psychologically. Humans are social animals – until we get overcrowded, and then we turn on each other. The world of Zanzibar is full of violence: individual killing sprees, terrorism, riots, and war. Many people try to escape from it with drugs, most of which are legal or at least tacitly allowed; everything from marijuana to powerful, laboratory-synthesized hallucinogens with names like Triptine and Skulbustium.

Brunner also explores how the pressure created by overpopulation exacerbates the gap between rich and poor and, at the same, binds them more closely. His main message (sent primarily through the character of the popular, cynical sociologist/commentator Chad Mulligan) is that even though you may think you are rich, you are not, really, if the rest of the world is horribly poor. Mulligan points out that water is eleven times more expensive than it was fifty years ago; that all our foods are prefabricated in factories; and that the fanciest new building being built in the world is a jail.

And throughout the whole book runs a perceptive debate about reproduction. In an overpopulated world, choosing to have a child is itself a political statement. And whether or not you want a child, you have to deal with complex emotional issues. Some people desperately want to have a child but are not allowed to because one partner has a bad genotype. Some have good genotypes but are infertile. Some people have excellent genotypes but don’t want children, and are constantly questioned (and constantly question themselves) why they don’t.

There are a million different ways to have a child: donor eggs or sperm, externally-fertilized ova, adoption, cloning. Each option brings anxiety and pain. And when the Yatakangis announce their cloning program, it brings up new issues about tailored babies. Is it right to breed for certain traits and against others? And do parents really want children who are more advanced than them?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. LeGuin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

LeGuin creates very human, reachable characters. And her writing is somehow…soft. I don’t mean wimpy-soft; I mean that it carries you along easily on a soft cushion of plot and description. You don’t have to struggle to follow the story. And you certainly don’t have to struggle to figure out what messages she’s trying to send.

Because her novels always do have messages. Most of the time they involve the idea of The Other – how society and/or individuals understand and accept or fear and reject someone who is different from themselves.

I generally appreciate these messages. Sometimes, though, they are just a little too loud. It can be hard to have fun reading when you’re too consciously aware that you’re receiving a MESSAGE.

All of the above, both the good and the bad, were generally true with this book.

There are several minor themes in this novel (the nature of patriotism; the importance of uncertainty) but the main messages are about gender and our assumptions about gender roles. It wasn’t the first piece of science fiction to deal with androgyny but it remains one of the most sensitive and was certainly groundbreaking for its time.

The main character, Genly Ai (a man), is an ambassador for the Ekumen, a peaceful association of 80-plus planets (including Earth) allied for the mutually beneficial exchange of information and trade. Ai is posted to the remote world of Winter (or “Gethen,” to the natives) to try to convince its residents to join the Ekumen.

Gethen is in the middle of an ice age, so it is covered with snow and ice and is always freezing cold.

The Gethenians are all androgynous except for a few days each month when they go into “kemmer.” During kemmer, either male or female hormones temporarily become dominant and the person’s body changes slightly to take the form of that gender. This is the only time the person can mate with somebody else (as long as that other person is also in kemmer and has taken the opposite gender role). Then they revert a few days later back to their normal neutral status. Any person can be male or female in any particular cycle; everybody has the potential to be a mother in one cycle and then a father the next.

This sets up a perfect framework in which to explore issues of difference and acceptance. As an Ekumen scout, sent to the planet undercover long ago, wrote in her report, any ambassador to Gethen “must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

The Gethenians are freaked out by Ai, who they see as a pervert, a person in a permanent state of kemmer. The genderlessness (or, rather, dual gendered-ness) of the Gethenians is also a challenge to Ai. He is uncomfortable thinking of his associates as both men and women – he is always trying to pigeonhole them as one or the other.

Plugging ahead with his job, though, Ai first appeals to the king of Karhide, a poor but basically happy land. The king is threatened by the idea of the Ekumen and exiles Ai and Ai’s main local ally, Prime Minister Estraven. Ai and Estraven then go to a rival country, Orgoreyn, which is richer and more technically advanced than Karhide, but which has work camps and secret police and an atmosphere of fear. Eventually they are exiled from Orgoreyn as well.

The two of them then have to go through a life-threatening mid-winter cross-country trek during which they, naturally, bond and attain a deep understanding of each other despite their differences. A major breakthrough for Ai comes when Estraven goes into kemmer as a female during their ordeal. “And then I saw again,” Ai says, “and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left was, at least, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality…I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, to a woman who was a man.”

In general, I liked the themes and the characters. I also liked the descriptions of the icy scenery and the incredible cold of Gethen:
“Under certain conditions our exhalations freezing instantly made a tiny cracking noise, like distant firecrackers, and a shower of crystals: each breath a snowstorm.”
Ai and Estraven traveled over a glacier “covered with great lumps and chunks of ice,” “slick blue ice hidden by a white glaze,” “broken pressure ridges taking queer shapes, overturned towers, legless giants, catapults.”
It’s just that, as I said, sometimes it felt like the main messages were kind of bald. It’s hard to define where the line is but I know it felt like too much when at one point Ai drew the yin/yang symbol for Estraven, explaining that it represented him - “Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Male, female. It is yourself...Both and one.” I get it already.

I thought that LeGuin’s Dispossessed was a slightly better exploration of the process of growing to understand people who are different from you. Or, anyway, I felt like the main character was a little stronger and that the message was a little more subtle and well integrated with the story.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: Falling Free

Lois McMaster Bujold
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I usually like Bujold’s books, but I found this one primarily dippy and also a bit creepy.

Falling Free is set on a remote space station owned and operated by the Ampad Corporation.

Ampad has staffed the station with custom-made genetically engineered workers called “quaddies.” The company has no intention of ever letting the quaddies walk on a planet’s surface; they are designed to spend their entire lives in the gravity-free environment of the station. So the company engineers have manipulated the quaddies’ genes to put an extra pair of arms where their legs should be. With four hands, the quaddies are able to work better in free-fall than a regular two-handed person since they can hold on with one or two of their hands while working with the other two or three. And breeding their own permanent in-station work force is cheaper than hiring planet-bound contractors.

The quaddies are good-natured and friendly – because they’ve been psychologically conditioned to be so. Unfortunately, the company doesn’t give a darn about them and sees them essentially as expendable slaves. The quaddies aren’t ever allowed off the station. They are forced to reproduce with whomever the company says they have to reproduce with, regardless of if they like that other quaddie or not. The company can also sterilize them at will.

The quaddies make up the bulk of the station’s work force, but the company has hired a few two-armed, two-legged people to fill supervisory roles like trainers and managers.

For the most part, the two-legged employees are 100% evil and mean and regard the quaddies as subhuman.

But then Ampad makes the mistake of hiring a two-legged guy named Leo Graf to be a welding instructor. Graf isn’t prejudiced towards the quaddies and quickly grows attached to them. Then, when he finds out that the company is thinking about installing cheap newly-developed artificial gravity systems in the station, which would mean they wouldn’t need free-fall-only employees anymore, he realizes that he has to help the quaddies escape before the company decides to sterilize and/or possibly kill all of them to cut costs.

The reason I say this book is dippy is because the plot is pretty basic and the characters just weren’t interesting or complex enough to make up for it. I lost most of my enthusiasm about a third of the way in.

The quaddies are also almost uniformly upbeat, optimistic, charming, friendly, kind, and earnest. Annoyingly so. I wish that some of them were a little cantankerous or at least just not so nice all the time.

The creepy part was that Leo Graf, who I interpreted as being a somewhat older man, ended up having a romantic relationship with what seemed like a really, really, really young quaddie. I’d like someone to tell me I have the ages wrong because it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Book Review: Timescape

Gregory Benford
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Timescape is set in the very near future. The back story is that pesticides developed in the past few decades have made their ways into our oceans and have started changing the cellular structure of microorganisms there. These altered microorganisms consume oxygen-producing algae and are spreading like mad, slowly destroying the entire food chain. By 1998 (which is the future, in this book) this has led to massive shortages, poverty, and crime, and things are getting worse fast.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists has discovered that if they broadcast tachyons in controlled bursts to a specific location in galactic space – to a location that the Earth used to occupy – they can send a coded signal back in time. If they want to send a signal back 50 years, for example, they would beam the tachyons towards the point in space where the Earth would have been 50 years ago. They figure if they can do this, they can let the scientists of the past know about the dangers of the pesticides before the pesticides even get manufactured, and thus the future will be changed for the better.

The tricky part is that the scientists of the past don’t know about tachyons yet and won’t know the message is coming so they won't be looking for it. So the scientists of 1998 have to beam the tachyons to a time when they know there were nuclear resonance experiments going on and basically cross their fingers, hoping that the tachyons will come up as noise in those experiments and that the scientists of the past will see the noise, realize that the noise has a pattern, figure out how to decode the pattern, and believe it once they have decoded it.

The nuclear resonance experimenters of 1963 do pick up the noise, fortunately, but then have to go through a methodical scientific process of trying to figure out what it is. It feels agonizingly slow. They go down several blind alleys and get distracted by outside events. I wanted to yell at them, “It’s a message from the future already! Hurry up and figure it out before it’s too late!” But it is also realistic; you can't expect responsible scientists to go any faster with something like this. And this creates good suspense.

The science is, in fact, the best part of Timescape. Gregory Benford is a physicist himself, so the theories, processes, laboratories, and equipment are believable and solid.

The details of academia also add a lot of color and clearly are written by someone who knows what he's talking about. The characters go through totally realistic classes, publications, advisory sessions, departmental squabbles, presentations at inter-disciplinary colloquia, and even a doctoral candidacy examination.

Being a time-travel story of a sort, the book raises the usual questions about paradoxes. In particular, if the scientists of 1963 prevent the development of the pesticides, then the scientists of 1998 won't need to send the message back in time anymore. Will that mean that they won't have sent it after all and we will get stuck in an endless paradox loop? Or will the scientists of 1998 emerge from their lab babbling like madmen about an environmental catastrophe that everyone else knows was avoided decades ago? Benford’s resolution of all this is interesting.

What drags the book down is the human-interest filler stuck in between the scientific parts. I was totally bored by the personal lives of the scientists in both 1963 and 1998. I didn’t care about their love interests or their emotional baggage.

Also, when the characters are not talking about physics, their conversations are stilted and awkward. This is particularly true for the British characters, who sound forced and inauthentic. One of the Britons uses the word “sod” three times on one page and it clunks all three times.

Fortunately, the human interest sections make up only about a third of the book. If you skip over all of them, it makes for quite a good story.

(Note: see No Enemy But Time for a slightly different resolution to a similar time-travel paradox.)
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