Sci-Fi Saturday 8/13/22

While I may not have been posting much lately, I have not been idle. One good descriptor for me — one that has been valid for nearly my entire life — is voracious reader. One thing I’m not, however, is a broadly eclectic reader. I tend to stay in the realms of science and science fiction, with the latter leaning well towards hard science fiction.

There is a third reading axis I love, the murder mystery, detective, crime, thriller axis (so: Christie, Grisham, Leonard, Child, et many al). And lately I’ve discovered some interest in historical accounts of quantum mechanics and the people behind it.

But Sci-Fi Saturday is all about the science fiction!

As I said, I have not been idle. I’ve always been secretly amused by those library or scholastic programs that try to get people to read more. They often have a target of one book a week (or two a month or whatever). Even when I was working, it wasn’t unusual to spend a Saturday or Sunday reading a whole book. I usually read on my lunch break, too.

Now that I’m retired, I gobble books down like potato chips (90 library books so far this year, according to my timeline, and that doesn’t include Kindle or Apple books or any blogs or online papers). As I said, voracious.

[I just noticed the Libby timeline begins August 2020, so it’s close to being exactly two years long. Happy Online Library Books Anniversary! While I’ve mentioned recent issues with the Libby app, it’s still one of my favorite and most frequently used apps. First book I checked out? Fittingly for today’s post: Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book of The Expanse series.]

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I have to start with author Robert J. Sawyer, whose books continue to engage and delight me. I wrote about him last June after reading his 2016 novel Quantum Night (which blew me away).

That post also covered two other novels, The Terminal Experiment (1995) and Red Planet Blues (2013).

The post immediately after it touched (briefly) on a fourth, Triggers (2012). That one starts off as a political thriller involving an assassination attempt against the POTUS and turns into an uplifting very science fiction story about the unified consciousness of all humanity. It not entirely incidentally uses a simple secret code (a substitution cypher) that I thought was cute and wrote the post about.

I’ve been reading what I can get my hands on ever since (even buying one of his books from Apple because the library doesn’t have them all). So far, I’ve read nine, with two more in the queue. And so far, I’ve enjoyed every single one. A lot.

Sawyer seems like someone I’d like personally. We seem to share interests, viewpoints, and sensibilities. We also seem to share many of the same cultural landmarks — so many of the media references Sawyer’s characters make cause me to smile fondly in remembrance. Lots of Star Trek references, but also many other TV shows I watched.

Something Ben Bova wrote connected some dots for me. Bova sees science fiction as fundamentally positive and aspirational. It’s about the future, which can be seen as basically either dystopic or utopic. Our cultural cynicism, disaffection, and ennui, have led to trend towards dystopic modern SF. Which is unfortunate, because I agree with Bova. The value of science fiction is that it shows us heights we can reach for. Yes, it can also warn about traps and depths, but so much of that falls under stuff we should have learned in kindergarten. If those lessons haven’t stuck by now, I’m not sure “dark” science fiction is going to help. It seems more a case of wallowing in crap to me. Worse, I just find it boring.

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But I digress (again). Very briefly (because each of these deserves, but probably won’t get from me, a full post of their own):

In Flashforward (1999), an experiment using the LHC at CERN has a worldwide side effect: Everyone seemingly loses consciousness for almost two minutes. With obvious disastrous results for those driving cars, landing planes, or getting surgery. During that time, everyone experiences almost two minutes of their future life. The whole world simultaneously experiences a slice from twenty-one-and-a-half years hence.

Unless you died before then, in which case you experienced nothing.

The story is an exercise in free will. How (or can) your life change by knowing (apparently for sure) exactly what you’ll be doing for about two minutes two decades (and some change) from now? One character learns they were murdered and becomes obsessed with finding out who did it and whether it can be prevented. Another finds themselves re-married and has to deal with what that suggests about their current marriage.

ABC made it into a TV series that lasted only one season.

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The Oppenheimer Alternative (2020), Sawyer’s most recent, is a very well researched people-oriented historical fiction about the Manhattan Project. Its protagonist is Robert Oppenheimer, but the book includes many other familiar figures (including Einstein). The story is mainly focused on the people and their lives. Little is said about the bomb development or technology.

The first part seems as accurate to reality as Sawyer could make it (he did extensive research). It takes a science fiction turn at about the one-third mark. Edward Teller, driven by his obsession with fusion and a possible hydrogen bomb, makes observations of the Sun and discovers an incident decades ago in its core is now working its way to the surface. As of the 1940s they think it get there in about 80 years — around 2028. The result will be catastrophic for all life on Earth. The blast will strip the atmosphere and boil away the oceans.

So, getting away from Earth, or finding a solution, becomes a big deal.

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Illegal Alien (2002) is a first-contact story and a courtroom drama. Sawyer, a Canadian with an outsider’s view of our justice system, was inspired by the OJ trial. A ship from Alpha Centauri arrives at Earth, the aliens are friendly, and promise many good things. But one apparently murders a human, and the city of Los Angeles decides to arrest and try him for murder.

As with all good science fiction (and courtroom dramas), there are some twists and turns. And as with Sawyer in general, no small amount of social observation and commentary. Works well for me because, as I said, he and I seem to have very similar viewpoints.

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In Factoring Humanity (1998) Earth has been receiving a message from Alpha Centauri, but other than the first pages with obvious symbols and physics diagrams, we haven’t been able to make head or tail of the message.

The protagonist, Heather Davis, a professor at the University of Toronto, has spent years studying the message. As have many others, but she’s the one to finally crack it. Before making it public, she builds the device it turns out to describe. (To my delight it has the form of an unfolded tesseract.) What happens next changes humanity forever.

As with Triggers and some of his other stories, Sawyer has a vision of humanity transcending into some form of shared global consciousness. In this one, it turns out the minds of all humans are already connected. We just don’t know it. The scope of Sawyer’s ideas is really quite wonderful.

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Wake (2008) is the first book of the WWW Trilogy, which is about the internet waking up to consciousness. And about blind teenager, Caitlin, with an experimental implant that lets her connect with Webmind (as it decides to call itself). I’m currently waiting for the second book, Watch (2010), to become available at the library. The last one is Wonder (2011).

One place Sawyer’s views diverge from mine is his apparent faith in strong computationalism (whereas I remain skeptical). But no matter, it’s the same way with Greg Egan, another favorite of mine. I don’t believe in FTL or time travel either but that doesn’t impede the enjoyment of fiction based on those notions. (Unless it’s really badly done.)

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As a final note, how cool is it that Sawyer managed to snag for himself the URL: sfwriter.com!

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I’ve written here about Ben Bova three times now. For those keeping score at home, Bova was two-for-three last spring. I liked Uranus (2020) but had a hard time enjoying the (posthumous) sequel, Neptune (2021). Then I read, and really enjoyed the much older, Mars (1992). [See Bova, Stephenson, Reynolds, Reynolds, Bova (redux), and Farscape (plus Bova and dreams), respectively.]

In the fall round, Bova went three-for-three with the short story (and occasional essay) collections: Maxwell’s Demons (1979), The Astral Mirror (1985), and Twice Seven (1998).

Bova is a bit like another hard SF author I like, Robert L. Forward. Both sprinkle their work with non-fiction essays, typically about technology and its effect on humanity (the theme of a lot of good SF).

[How weird would it have been had this post included two hard SF authors with the name Robert J Something? If you’re a fan of hard SF loaded with physics and aren’t familiar with Robert L. Forward, definitely check him out.]

Of course, it was never a question of whether I’d like Bova or not. It’s not far off the mark to say I’ve been a science fiction fan all my life (certainly all my reading life), so he’s one of those writers I met early on in magazines and books. Of course I like Bova. That’s what made Neptune so surprising.

Currently, I’m reading his first novel, The Star Conquerors (1959). He was 26 when it was published, and it’s very much written by a young adult for young adults.

Well, we call it “young adult” fiction now. Back then it was called “juvenile” fiction. Hard to say whether there was a pejorative tinge in the older term. Lots of things we assumed didn’t hide malicious intent turned out have darker roots than innocents understood. At the same time, some babies got tossed out with the bad bath water, so who knows. Science fiction long had a reputation as for kids, as not serious literature. Some thought all of it was juvenile.

But such luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein wrote “juvenile” science fiction. Some of my first experiences of SF came from Asimov’s Lucky Starr series. And some of my first experiences of science came from the same places.

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I’ve intended to explore the work of Samuel R. Delany for decades. He’s one of those widely acknowledged as both literary and outstanding. As sometimes seems the case, the intersection of those can result in stories that are as unlikely as they are opaque. Even fans of Delany’s work have used the word “challenging” to describe some of his books.

Now I see why. Quite honestly, he’s way above my head on the literary background scale. Probably on the intelligence scale as well. I feel like a tourist without a map in a very complicated foreign town. So lost.

Things started off pretty good with the first one, Nova (1968). It’s a striking space opera with stylistic deep overtones. (In that regard it reminds me vaguely of The Gap Cycle series, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Plot-wise a space opera; tone-wise something much, much richer.)

I also enjoyed the next one, Babel-17 (1966). It’s another space adventure, but (as with Nova) richer in writing style and character. As the title might suggest, it revolves in part around the role and possibilities of language. While Nova read somewhat like a myth (and intentionally somewhat like Moby Dick), Babel-17 was a more straightforward story.

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Delany’s later work was more experimental. Dhalgren (1975) is seen as one of his more “challenging” works. It has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Back in the 1970s (with roots in the 1960s hippie movement), science fiction (and a lot else) underwent a period of exploration and experimentation that persisted into the 1980s. I learned back then that most of it wasn’t for me. I don’t read stories to appreciate the boundaries of storytelling style or the artistic appreciation of writing. Not often, anyway.

As I’ve said many times, I read to be taken someplace new. It’s a form of travel that reaches from the bottom of the sea to the inside of the sun to the most distant galaxy. And it’s instantaneous, you don’t have to pack, and neither shots nor passport are required.

There are authors who tell can tell engaging story and impress with a rich writing style. C.J. Cherryh and Ursula K. Le Guin rank high that way. Paul Beatty is another example; his writing has a downright lyrical feel. (Not surprising; he’s a poet.)

Keep in mind, though, that while we don’t think of Isaac Asimov or Agatha Christie as having an apparent literary style, in actually it takes great skill to write as transparently as they do. Elmore Leonard is another one with a deliberate and carefully transparent style. His characters only ever say things (he said, she said). They never blurt, exclaim, stammer, whisper, or any of the modifiers writers use. Leonard feels it inserts the writer too much.

Which is all to say I didn’t even try reading Dhalgren.

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I did read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). Or at least I tried to. I couldn’t get through it and bailed about halfway through. It’s ultimately a very deep story about gender and slavery — topics Delany explores quite a bit and in depth in his work. (Delany is gay and Black. A lot of his work touches on sexuality, gender, and self.)

One challenging aspect is how Delany breaks conventional pronoun and gender use. Everyone is a woman, regardless of biology. The exception is when the main character (biologically male and mostly gay oriented) is sexually attracted. Then gender perception and pronoun use change to “him/he”. It’s a device that’s as awesomely mind-shifting as it is a pain in the ass to read. “Challenging” is putting it nicely.

I also couldn’t finish Trouble on Triton (1976). I bailed pretty early on that one. It just didn’t engage me, and Delany’s writing style is, indeed, challenging. So is his preoccupation with sex. It’s so 1970s. (Remember how nudity became obligatory in films during that era?)

It might be interesting to try his earlier stuff. The Einstein Intersection (1967) sounds kind of interesting.

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A final note: I finished a collection of short stories by R.A. Lafferty, and I’m partway through another of stories by Robert Sheckley. Courtesy of Megapacks from Wildside Press. They’re available through Apple Books and Amazon Kindle or directly from Wildside.

These Megapacks tend to be dirt cheap and filled with tasty goodness. They come in various categories (I have several from the Golden Age of Science Fiction series) and in Author-based versions (hence the Lafferty and Sheckley collections).

Highly recommended for all voracious readers.

Stay reading, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Sci-Fi Saturday 8/13/22

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I once tried Delaney and didn’t find him my cup of tea. (Don’t remember which book exactly I tried.) Although I didn’t know he wrote anything in a more traditional form. I also didn’t realize he did that with genders. It sounds similar to what Ann Leckie did in her Ancillary novels, which have a society where everyone is referred to with female pronouns. I’d be surprised if she hadn’t read Delaney.

    On Elmore Leonard’s use of dialog tags, his style is now considered best practice. Most of the books on writing urge sticking with “said” rather than the other terms, to let what the character is saying carry the weight of conveying whether they “blurted”, “shouted”, etc. You can see the effect in contemporary books, at least American ones. Although like anything else, I think if followed too rigidly it can be stifling.

    I’ve sampled some of those megapacks, but didn’t realize how many there were. I need to spend some time shopping on that site. Thanks for linking to it!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Those megapacks are up to the 54th volume of Golden Age of Science Fiction, and that’s just one series (and each is only 99 cents). Pretty amazing! I’ll be shopping there more, too.

      I quite agree that no art rule should be followed blindly. Good art usually involves breaking the rules (at the right time in the right way), and any style that becomes universal can become a cage. It’s similar to how they say science proceeds one dead scientist at a time. New becomes old. That said, in both areas sometimes experiments don’t work. I’m not sure what the literary world gained during the experimental 1970s (likewise, in general, of that whole hippie era), but you never know unless you try. In any event, I usually find that 1970s era experimental science fiction unreadable. There’s a reason storytellers converged on the attractors of more straightforward storytelling. Style is generally the enemy of immersion.

      I’m not familiar with Leckie, but I notice her Wiki article says, “Having grown up as a science fiction fan in St. Louis, Missouri,…” Given that, and that she’s a newcomer, I’m sure you’re right she was influenced by Delany vis-a-vis use of pronouns.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The only issue I see with the megapacks is that their content, within a certain scope, seem somewhat random. I’m actually more particular than you are with my fiction (although more open to fantasy). I like to know what I’m getting into.

        The 60s and 70s seem like they were a time of questioning long held traditions. I agree that needs to happen from time to time. Although periods of revision always seem to be followed by a backlash, such as the 80s. But the 70s were when I came into consciousness, and I’ve always had nostalgia for the attitudes of that time (or at least some of them).

        On Leckie, she did some interesting stuff with narrative viewpoints, and obviously pushed some anthropological boundaries with the society she portrayed. I enjoyed Ancillary Justice, but was less taken with the other books in that trilogy. I found them a bit too PC for my tastes. And I haven’t read her other stuff.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha, that’s funny! What you see as an issue I see as a bonus. I enjoy the wide range of those Golden Age collections. The author-based collections, of course, are only as diverse as the author was. I think that does speak to a fundamental difference in approach. I’m all about the new, whether it’s restaurants, walking paths, or stories but obviously constrained to my sometimes broad sometimes narrow tastes — I’m not big on Thai or sushi, for example, so those I avoid. It’s true I lean towards harder SF when it comes to the stories that really engage. (Although there are some major exceptions. Pratchett, Asprin, Foster, Donaldson, even Rowling.) Taste again. With short story collections and older SF, I’m much more open to fantasy. So much of the early stuff was sheer fantasy even at the time. Ray Bradbury’s stuff is an example. The R.A. Lafferty collection I just read had similar examples. Stories that, for all the SF trappings, read like fairy tales where things just are what they are. It’s more about good stories that take me someplace new, and the harder SF usually just does that better than any other genre.

        That said, a lot of the stuff in those collections is chaff, but I’ve found at least one tasty thing in each one. More than enough to justify the 99 cents. For instance, one of them had the CM Kornbluth story The Marching Morons, which I’d only heard about as the inspiration for the movie Idiocracy. Always wanted to read it, so it was a nice surprise stumbling on it.

        Yeah, the “Me 80s” in response to the “let’s share” hippie ethic. The pendulum just swings back and forth. The unfortunate thing (I think) about the 1960s was that it involved so much deconstruction. Many see Watergate as the beginning of a loss of faith in our institutions. Combine that with civil rights, the Vietnam war, the hippie movement, various advances in science and technology (computers! lasers!), and it amounts to some serious upheaval. It really undermined our foundations and left us unmoored.

  • Mystery Monday 8/15/22 | Logos con carne

    […] Last post I mentioned my third literary axis, the murder mystery, detective, crime, thriller axis. The interest, inherited from my dad, goes back almost as far as the science fiction axis. It started, very early, with Sherlock Holmes, which led to the Agatha Christie version, Hercule Poirot. […]

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