I Just Finished – The Venus Belt by L. Neil Smith

Once upon a time, science fiction wasn’t only published to gently massage the psyches of readers who are politically left of center. L. Neil Smith is an unashamedly libertarian author, best-known, sadly, I think, for writing the Lando Calrissian adventure novels back in the early 80s. (Which novels, by the way, I reviewed for SeqArt’s upcoming third volume of Star Wars essays.) Possibly his best-known original work is a novel called The Probability Broach. It’s a tale about alternate universes and traveling between them, and it establishes a world called The American Confederacy, a place where one word made all the difference in what happened to the nation that formed when the colonists revolted and broke away from England in 1776. That word was “unanimous.” In the American Confederacy, government power depends on the unanimous consent of the governed. You can imagine not a lot gets done by government in that America, which is exactly what libertarians are after. The Probability Broach also delightfully offers a solution to the question of nature vs. nurture. Its answer? Free will wins over them both.

This novel, one of several set in the American Confederacy is not as eye-opening as The Probability Broach. That bar was set pretty high. It’s solidly entertaining, though. For me, it’s just so nice to read a story where the villains are named “Hamiltonians.” If you didn’t know that I deplore Alexander Hamilton, you probably don’t know me very well. It offers one of the more creative comeuppances I’ve seen for the vile villains at the end, too. The title derives from the project the heroes undertake in the book—doing a little solar system re-engineering by turning Venus, a not particularly useful planet, into a second asteroid belt which can be mined for resources. Smith’s hero, Detective Win Bear, reflects on the morality of such a drastic change to the environment:

“But, hell, all life has environmental impact, just by nature of its being. Intelligence manipulates its environment, purposefully, instead of the other way around. [Dissenters] to the contrary, to do less is to resign from being sentient. To denounce it is to renounce intelligence.

“Which, I suspect, was their point all along.”

I Just Finished – The Handmaid’s Tale

This book came out my sophomore year in college, a time when I was both voraciously devouring science fiction, and still considered myself a bleeding-heart liberal. I mean, I had just voted for the extremely uninspiring Walter Mondale! Still, something about the book discouraged me from reading it. Maybe it was the fact that, though it was in the SF section of the (excellent!) UMCP Bookstore, it seemed to want to be ‘literary,’ and I have always distrusted pretentiousness. Science fiction was so often condemned for not being ‘literary’ that I didn’t want any truck with the other camp.

Or maybe it was that the clearly feminist theme was not something I wanted to dive into, given that I was in classes with a lot of budding third-wave feminists, and they were beginning to make me uncomfortable. I had certainly had my first encounter with the works of Andrea Dworkin by that time, and my response to them was, “Ew! Hate much?” (Okay, no, in 1985 no one talked that way. Still…)

But my wife likes the TV show on Hulu, and so the book landed in our shared audible queue. So I gave it a listen and I’m glad I did. It’s an honest book, and a thoughtful one. If deals in misogyny and religious fundamentalism, but doesn’t beat the reader in the face with either. It shows how members of an oppressed class can become their own worst enemies, enabling the oppressors. It has nice touches of humanity and well-developed characters, and it ultimately shows that, if one class is denied freedom, freedom is lacking for everyone. An important message.

Will I watch the TV show now? Hmmm… Anybody both read the book and watched the show?

Review – Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson

Flashback to high school – Nineteen-eighty… something. War games were catching on. There were role-playing games in the wake of Dungeons & Dragons, then only about five years old; there were those bookcase-packaged strategy games from Avalon Hill, and those trays of maps and cardboard chits from… was it TSR?  I bought a lot of them.  Rarely played them. Then came to my high school the first L.A.R.P. (Live Action Role-Play) I ever encountered.  I think, though I can’t swear, that it was called Chaos. Or Kaos? It involved stalking opponents through the hallways of the school and attacking them (theoretically, of course for these were math and science geeks doing the attacking.)

I don’t remember what form the attacks took.  I do remember writing an editorial in the school paper about “Chaos.” We’d done a news article about it in the same issue. (I was the news editor for the paper.) I was somewhat disturbed by quotes from one enthusiastic player to the effect that the simulated killing was more of a rush than sex. This quote coming, I’m fairly certain, from someone who, at sixteen or so, had firsthand knowledge of exactly neither.  (Nor, I quickly point out, did I have… much… firsthand knowledge of such things at the time either.)

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REFLECTION – Immortality

So I was thinking about Will Robinson.  Why? you may well ask.  I couldn’t sleep the other night, so I pulled up Hulu Plus on the Blu-Ray and looked for something that would soothe me and which I could fall asleep on without worrying about what I missed.  Episodes of many TV series of the sixties are so ingrained in my mind that they feel more like memories of old times than fiction.  I know my way around the Jupiter Two or the Enterprise as well as I know every inch of the house I grew up in.  So I chose to play a black and white episode of Lost in Space to lull myself to sleep.

As I watched out of increasingly heavy eyes, it occurred to me that Will Robinson, the young hero of Lost in Space, is eternally twelve years old.  Currently, that makes him the age of my youngest son.

Now I realize that Bill Mumy, the real life actor who played the part, is ten years older than I.  I’ve met Bill, his lovely wife, and their very talented daughter.  He’s a real guy who’s aging right along with the rest of us.  It must be even stranger for him to see himself so young, still cavorting amongst the mysterious caves, jungles and infinite blacknesses (read: empty soundstages) of alien worlds.

But Will is, and always will be, twelve.  When I was little, five or six, Will was, in my childish imagination, a big brother with whom I’d never fight, and with whom I could imagine sharing incredible adventures in worlds where kids could be heroes and adults were usually too jaded or too busy to notice the dangers around us and come up with ways to combat them.  I strongly identified with this kid.  Which, of course, was the point of having a kid on the show.  Young viewers would identify with him.  He had an ingenious sister, Penny, with whom young girls could identify.  (Probably there were boys who identified with Penny and girls who identified with Will, but I digress.)

When I was in high school, I still watched Lost in Space.  I kept it a secret, because high school kids were supposed to be sophisticated.  We knew it all, we’d seen it all, we were virgins only in our left ears.  We didn’t watch silly kids shows.  You have no idea what a relief it was to me when my journalism teacher confessed that he, like me, charged home after school to catch Lost in Space reruns.

At that age, I thought it would be cool to have a little brother like Will Robinson: someone brave and incredibly intelligent who would look up to me, and to whom I could give advice.  I was one hell of a wise counselor at age fifteen, I assure you.  It’s a pity I had no younger siblings to benefit from my sage guidance.  The world would be a far happier place if I had.

There weren’t many other kids in the pantheon of heroes of fantasy, science fiction and adventure.  The X-Men were young, certainly.  The Teen Titans were teens; but they were all older teens, or people in their twenties.  They owned cars and had their own apartments or independent living quarters in exotic locations.  Even to a high school student, they seemed like older role models, not peers.  Most of them didn’t even have definite ages.  I rarely thought of them, age-wise, in comparison to myself.  (Except for Power Girl, with whom I fell madly in love beginning around age twelve, and remained so until she grew prehensile breasts capable of smashing a man’s head.)

And then I became a college student and an a adult with a job, a married person, a parent… I was too busy to notice the passing years and really think about the fact that I’d aged past many of my childhood heroes.  The realization didn’t strike me until Dean Cain, an actor younger than I, was cast as Superman.  Superman was younger than me!  Impossible!  You’d think getting a full time job or having kids or owning a house would be the major rites of passage; no, for me, it was realizing I was older than Superman.  That said I must be an adult, even if I didn’t (and still don’t) feel like one.  What I hit the other night was a secondary rite of passage – realizing that I’m not only an adult, I’m now old enough to be the father of my imaginary childhood friend.  I must be, since my youngest child is his age! (And I understand his classmates have started asking, “Dude, how come your parents are so OLD?”)

It’s interesting, reflecting on how our attitudes change towards fictional characters we love as the decades pass.  They stay forever the same, and we change drastically.  When we encounter them again, do we recall lost youth?  Do we feel younger than them again, or the same age?  If you’re only as old as you feel, how is your perceived age affected by those around you, even those fictional characters around you?  (If you don’t consider fictional characters part of your daily life, you’re not engaging your brain enough.  Go back to START and skip three turns.  Read a book.  Come back to me when your imagination reboots.)

Or do we not let our perceptions be affected at all by those forever-young characters?  Do we instead resent them for still being young, or dismiss them as irrelevant?  (Because resentment should be saved for real people, and we’re all grown-up an practical now, after all.)  Worse, do we also resent the real young people in our lives for being young while we no longer are?  If our fictional friends could somehow see us changing over the years, what would they think of us?

Resentment of the immortal has been a common theme in fictional works which addressed immortality.  In Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, the long-lived (though not yet immortal) Howard families, who achieved long life via a eugenics program, are forced to flee earth because short-lived humans hate and envy them.  The hatred stemmed, supposedly, from the belief that the Howards had a “secret,” some sort of magic elixir.  There was a way that all people could be immortal, and the greedy Howards were just keeping it to themselves.  I always wondered if their tormentors really believed this, or if they were more just driven to violence by the fact that the Howards had something they couldn’t possess.

The Howards were one of the few cases I’ve encountered where immortality simply came to humans, the fulfillment of an unrealized potential within us.  Most immortals in SF and Fantasy have come upon their long lives via some device.  Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter shed his physical body early on in his adventures, and his spirit became flesh.   So he didn’t need to die.  His spiritual brother Tarzan, along with his family, took an elixir to gain immortality, at the end of the novel Tarzan’s Quest.  The elixir was hard-won and a closely guarded secret, something in keeping with the expectations of the masses in Methuselah’s Children.

But Tarzan and John Carter got to be immortal alongside their loved ones.  They didn’t ever really have to reflect on what it was like to watch those they cared for age and die while they remained young and perfect.  Nor did the comparatively young Lazarus Long in Methuselah’s Children.  They were too busy hiding their immortality, running from those who coveted it, or just plain ignoring the short-lived.

Millennia later, though, Lazarus Long was forced to come to terms with the pain of being nigh-immortal, and we were there to live that pain with him.  In “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter,” (from Time Enough for Love) one of the most beautiful and moving stories in all of SF, Lazarus marries his foster child, Dora, upon her coming of age.  He stays with her, has children, watches her grow old, and buries her.  This happens in the blink of an eye to this man who’s almost a thousand years old at the time of the story, but it happens over the course of, for Dora, a long life.  And Dora is the love of Lazarus’s own very long life.  A thousand years later, he still isn’t over her.  He lives on, he loves others, but she never leaves him.  She never for a moment resents the fact that he will outlive him for centuries.  Some might suggest that makes her too perfect to be real.  I prefer to believe Dora is an example of someone who’s very comfortable with exactly who and what she is.

Isaac Asimov gave us a glimpse into the long-lifer-loves-short-lifer scenario from a dual perspective in Robots and Empire, a sequel to his robot detective novels The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, and a prequel to his Foundation Trilogy.  In it, Gladia Delmarre is a “spacer,” a genetically enhanced, long-lived human who once loved an earthman named Elijah Baley, now centuries dead.  Her robot companion, Daneel Olivaw, was once Baley’s partner in investigating crime.  Both had stronger emotional ties to the short-lived Baley than to any other human or robot they’d known.

Generally, mentally healthy characters in fiction are not depicted as expecting their dead loved ones to return, nor are they shown making attempts to bring them back.  That way lies madness, after all.  The bereaved parents in “The Monkey’s Paw” learn this when they wish their dead son out of his grave.  David, the young android hero of A.I., a film based on Brian Aldiss’s “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” sacrifices his own immortality in trade for spending one more day with his lost human mother.

But an immortal character I wrote about last week, Max August, does have expectations that his dead loved one will return, and they seem sane because his creator deals with immortality on two levels.  Max, an alchemist, is physically immortal as a result of his craft. He lost his wife, Valerie, years ago on New Year’s Eve; but Valerie is likewise immortal.  She’s just not physically immortal, she’s spiritually immortal.  For many All Hallows Eves, Valerie contacts Max to let him know she’s still there.  As of Max’s latest adventure, The Plain Man, Max is expecting Val’s return in the flesh, and Val is… well, we’re not sure what Val is.  We think she’s trying to come back, but the forces of evil are doing their damndest to stop her.

Fictional portrayals of immortality, show that, even at its best, immortality can be inconvenient (John Carter had to die to get there), a dark secret (for Tarzan), heart-wrenching (for Lazarus) something we’re not quite sure we’re happy we possess (for Daneel and Gladia), or fraught with peril, as it is for Max.  Indeed, Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek, and Barnabas and Quentin Collins in Dark Shadows were seen to beg to be rid of immortality.

Fiction tells us that immortality is a pain in the ass.

Small wonder then, that people such as I who grow attached to our fictional characters are given pause when we ponder their immortal nature.  Fictional characters are our sounding boards, our mirrors.  They give us a framework within which to figure out how the hell to live our real lives.  In this case, however, they make us uncomfortable, as we realize that they will be here long after we are no longer available to speak to the living and tell them our stories.  We wonder, will we have their power to transcend death as memories, as fictional characters ourselves?

I think, though, that our immortal companions, the fictional ones, the myths, serve a purpose even in this capacity.  They can, if we let them, remind us that youth doesn’t have to go away, that the best in us doesn’t have to age.  Indeed, it can go on forever.  So even though we look at them differently from year to year, I think spending a little time with ageless childhood friends can be healthy.  It allows us to, as Ellen Degeneres said in a stand up routine a few years ago, “play with our inner child.”  She pointed out that, if we didn’t, our inner child could be just as spiteful and vindictive as any other child who’s being ignored.

Then, perhaps, immortality can finally give us perspective, as it did David Bowman and Hal 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010.

My Golden Age of Science Fiction

“The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.”

Not a clue who said it first.  I thought it was Sprague DeCamp.  It’s been attributed by Thomas Disch to Terry Carr, who apparently denies saying it.  Carr attributes it to Peter Scott Graham, only Carr says Graham set the number at thirteen.  David G. Hartwell wrote a piece for Futures Past entitled “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve,” and gives attribution to Graham.  There’s a good summary here.

At any rate, it’s a good observation.  What time period constitutes the high point or classic era of a genre or art form is a highly personal call, and any opinion we offer has a lot more to do with our personal history than we’re probably willing to admit.  I’ll say this: whenever the Golden Age of Science Fiction was, it sure as hell isn’t now!  There are still good SF authors living and working, but they’re being obscured by the plethora of licensed novels and the desire of publishers and retailers to only handle books which will sell in the millions of copies.  Friends often point out to me that Asimov’s and Analog are still publishing good SF, but I don’t care for short stories much, and I think the pulse of the genre is best taken on the retail book shelf, not at the newsstand.

For my money, if you want to shop for Science Fiction, your best bet is to find a good used book store.  When compiling a list of books worth reading, one should not start with only the set of books published in the last two years.  The thoughts of authors who wrote twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago are often equally as worthy of our attention as those of authors writing now.  They may be moreso, for an author writing at least twenty years ago never heard of the Kardashians, Octo-Mom, or Kanye West, and thus must have possessed a kind of intellectual purity to which we poor denizens of 2011 can’t even aspire.

And sure, science has grown and evolved.  An SF book from 1930 is going to contain incorrect assumptions and outright errors; but then I’ve read fiction from the past two years which suggest that Earth’s sun could turn red within centuries, and earth would survive (!) or that aliens from non-Earthlike planets could have DNA.  I therefore don’t think a decades-old work should be forgotten simply because it may contain the odd scientific error.  We can learn a lot, after all, by looking at mistakes, other peoples’ as well as our own.

I am therefore embarking on a new project: I want to highlight on something of a regular basis works which I think should be of interest to fans of Science Fiction.  I’ll pull heavily from what I’m reading right now, and you’ll find that that list includes a lot of books from long ago which I’ve stumbled across in my journey as a used book addict.  (And some of them will have been sitting on my shelf for decades before I’ve read them! I own as many as a thousand books I’ve not read.)  I’ll probably also touch on comics, TV shows, movies… you name it.  What I pick will be, by my definition, what should interest a fan of Science Fiction.  In other words, selfish S.O.B. that I am, I’m going to talk about what interests me.  That means you may find a few non-SF creatures like vampires, a few werewolves, and a few costumed heroes, but you’re very unlikely to read about orcs, hobbits or (Hugo help me!) Dragons.

Which leads back to what exactly was my golden age of Science Fiction?  It lasted a while, as I recall.  It probably did begin at about age twelve, possibly even eleven.  It was not book-oriented, at first.  1976, when I turned eleven, offered a fair sampling of SF-themed pop culture.  We had the Six-Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, plus Space:1999 on TV, Logan’s Run in the theaters, and The X-Men just rising to fame in comic books.  The next year would of course bring Star Wars.  All of these captured my imagination, and, of course, there were Star Trek re-runs twice a day.

Probably Star Trek stuck with me the best as I got a little older.  The first Trek film, arguably the last of the seventies SF-epics, came to theaters just as the Seventies closed.  I think that added some energy to my love of the show, but it was already strong.  I was already buying every book published by Bantam and Doubleday, and starting to dabble in the fanzines.  Here was my gateway to book reading.  I remember spending a Sunday during high school, laying in my bed with a copy of the Trek novel Devil World, by Gordon Eklund.  As the sun went down and concerned family members stuck their heads in to suggest I was damaging my eyes by reading in the dark, I did something I’d never done before: I read a novel in one sitting.  Talk about your golden age! I couldn’t sit still that long now if Bob Heinlein leapt from his grave, handed me an unpublished manuscript and stared at me while I read.

Previous Trek novels had seemed largely to be SF novels the authors couldn’t sell elsewhere, and they’d stuck the Enterprise crew into them and sold them to a publisher who wanted “names” on the books he was selling to rabid Trek fans clamoring for more.  This one, however, seemed to actually be a story planned with the characters in mind, and I was hooked.  I went out seeking more stories by this Eklund guy.  (And Gordon, if you happen across this blog, it’s been way too long since I’ve seen a new book with that guy’s name on it!)  Suddenly I was reading non-Trek, non-movie-inspired SF.

As high school progressed, comics began to frustrate me and SF on TV and in movies dwindled or became too concerned with cashing in on Star Wars’ success, I delved farther into books.  I tore into authors whose works I hadn’t read, and decided I should become more knowledgeable about the SF field.  It helped that I met a girl – an actual girl! – who also liked SF, and looked at me in disgust when she found out how little real SF I’d read.  She handed me books by Heinlein, and who was I to say no to a girl who liked SF?  RAH became my eternal favorite.

My time in high school – 1979 – 1983 – was a pretty exciting one, literary SF wise.  Many of the classics of the genre were already old, but their authors were still producing.  Heinlein wrote Friday, Clarke sequelized 2001, and Asimov wrote new robot novels.  (I was less excited about the Foundation sequels.  I recognize the trilogy’s importance, but my heart belongs to the robots, and has since I first saw Robby duke it out with his cousin from Lost in Space.)

Alas, as I got older, so did the genre.  Star Trek: The Next Generation bumbled its way into forever changing how we saw SF, and the greats of the field all slipped away from us.  (They’re not dead, you understand.  They were picked up by continua craft and whisked off to a convention in the far future.  But it’s better there than here, so they’re staying.)  While there’s still some cool stuff happening, the death throes of traditional publishing leave the future of the genre in doubt.  My personal golden age would seem to be long past.

Recently, though, even before I decided I needed to start blogging more actively, I’ve been revisiting some of the books from that personal golden age, and seeing how they hold up.  Many of them are still worth a reader’s time, yet they’re not on the shelves any more.  So I think I’ll put in some time in this space, in months to come, to let whoever-the-hell-is-reading know what I think may be worth their time and why.

So check this space.  I’m shooting for weekly.  We’ll see if I can get more ambitious.

One last thing: I think the last entry in this blog announced a similar intent to do a series of posts on a topic, specifically the need for government.  That got dropped fairly quickly for personal reasons.  I won’t go into it.  It’s in the past.  I do think that this project, being more personal, is something I can sustain.  Here’s hoping…