Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971
World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.
Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.
The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.
The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own. With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.
For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.
I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.
Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970
Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.
I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.
This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.
In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.
There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.
It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.
In early 2011, following certain revelations regarding an alleged revolution in self-publishing, I pulled an old manuscript out of an overstuffed file cabinet. The title of the book was The Way of Leyra’an. It was the first and only novel I’d written since completing a long-delayed B.S. in plant biology in 1998. Before my return to academia I’d written half a dozen novels (and rewritten all of them at least once), and enough short stories and magazine articles that I can no long remember the count. I’d sold some of the nonfiction, but not a single novel or short story. The sort of fall-back work I’d been doing while writing was wearing me out physically, so I went back to school to increase my range of options. As soon as the degree was done, I went back to writing fiction. Although it was easily the best thing I’d written to that point in my life, by that day in 2011 The Way of Leyra’an had spent the better part of a decade in that cabinet, and came very near to being my last work of fiction.
The first publisher to see it rejected it. This came as no surprise, since the odds are overwhelmingly against any given publisher saying “yes.” The rejection letter intrigued me, however, and encouraged me. It wasn’t a boilerplate response with a hastily scribbled signature at the bottom. It was an expression of regret. The editor liked the book! Unfortunately, he didn’t believe his company could find a viable market for it. They already had too much of that type of story in the pipeline. Bad luck regarding the marketability, but at least he liked the book! So I bundled The Way of Leyra’an up and sent it to the next publisher on my short list of those still accepting un-agented manuscripts – a list that has grown steadily shorter in the years that followed, or so I’m told. I waited and went about my business – working on student loans and getting accustomed to mortgage payments – and lo and behold, there came another rejection letter. It said essentially the same thing. Third time’s the charm, so they say. Whoever “they” are, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. The book bounced that time, too, with essentially the same letter coming along for the ride.
The message seemed clear – I needed to be better than every other aspiring writer, luckier than the rest, and have the psychic power to see into the future and avoid writing books that would be unmarketable by the time I finished them.
Knocked down three times, get up four, some would say. Persistence is easy to preach, but by that time I’d been knocked down and around by rejection letters for more than twenty years. I’d had enough. I didn’t send it out a fourth time. I packed it away, closed work-in-progress files on my computer, and quit. It was time to find other ways to spend my time when I wasn’t busy working to pay off those debts.
The consequences of this decision were not immediately apparent. In fact, for a few years it felt like I’d recovered from a long illness. I spent more time in the garden and returned to the world of amateur astronomy. The latter in particular soaked up a lot of creative energy, and the time I’d originally devoted to writing. It was (and is) an immensely enjoyable and rewarding hobby. But the feeling of emancipation didn’t last. At some point in 2007 I became aware that my basic attitude toward life had shifted in the wrong direction. I was more sarcastic and cynical, and more likely to see the negative side of things. A comment from my wife started the process of realizing I was headed for trouble. She said that I didn’t laugh as much as I used to, her way of asking what was wrong without making a complaint of it. Given the amount of humor that was a hallmark of our relationship, I was baffled and unsettled by the question – and I didn’t see it her way, which represented a hefty dose of denial on my part. Then I started to have the nightmare. It was a dark dream that repeated along variations on a theme, the central element being that I had gotten myself lost and, for some reason this was worse, couldn’t come up with a reason for being there. What purpose did it serve, I’d ask myself. And the answer would come: “None.” I’d then be seized by chest pains that lingered when I woke up in a cold sweat, leaving me to wonder if this time the heart attack was for real. It was never real. It was frightening nonetheless, and as the frequency of the nightmare increased, it started to wear me down.
That sense of being without direction or purpose was corrosive. I wasn’t as much fun to be with or work with, and I lost any sense that the work I was doing was worth anything or was going to take me anywhere I wanted or needed to go. I was considering asking my doctor to refer me to someone qualified to throw me a lifeline. Depression? No doubt about that. Nothing made much sense, fewer and fewer things seemed worth doing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Oh, life wasn’t uniformly bleak. There were good times that diverted me and provided some relief, but more and more often, especially in winter, I would awaken to a black mood and the firm conviction that none of this was worth a damn.
All the while, Amazon and its Kindle e-reader were turning the world of writing and publishing upside down. I’d heard of the Kindle; being book-oriented regardless of what else was going on, I could hardly miss it. I remember my amazement the first time I saw and held one. There’d been e-readers before, but they were big, clunky disasters. This thing was like a gadget out of Star Trek. I was fascinated, and I immediately wanted one, but I had no clue regarding the effect it was having on the world at large. So I couldn’t have predicted how e-books would ultimately influence my life.
That changed when my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, one of whom had recently published her first novel with a small press outfit. Over lunch this friend mentioned her plan to self-publish her next book. I’m afraid my mind translated “self-publish” into “vanity press,” since the two had been nearly synonymous for many years. I tried not to react openly to this, but she knew what I was thinking – it was such a predictable reaction. The explanation that followed acquainted me with e-book direct publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, developments that had passed me by because I’d stopped paying much attention to the publishing world. It sounded way too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway. What I learned sounded promising, and next time we were with these friends I said as much. The suggestion was made then that I pull out an “old” manuscript and try self-publishing it to see what would happen. Of course, I pulled out my most recent attempt, The Way of Leyra’an.
What came next will be the subject of the second part of this essay.
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, Winner of the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Science fiction and fantasy are sometimes dismissed by a certain form of literary elitist as “mere” escapism, as if an escape from “reality” is unique to modern-day genre fiction. That this is a foolish oversimplification is obvious to most of us. All fiction takes you away from this world; it’s just a matter of how far you travel. With science fiction and fantasy, you often find yourself traveling a long way, right off the edge of the map.
Sometimes you wonder if you’ve gone anywhere at all.
That was my overall reaction to rereading John Brunner’s best known work, Stand on Zanzibar. This is a dark, clever, inventive novel that challenged readers when it appeared in the late 1960s, and continues to do so now. The story unfolds through overlapping sections that build the world of the novel in layers of description and anecdote, even as the characters and their situations develop. There’s a lot to this book, and if you don’t familiarize yourself, through the table of contents, with how it is structured, it could leave you a bit confused. Brunner doesn’t spoon-feed readers in this one. Impatient readers and others with impaired attention spans might think the book a hopeless muddle. Patient readers who pay attention will be not be sorry they stayed the course. It’s a powerful book, well-written and full of dry, cynical wit, imaginative world building, and fascinatingly flawed characters. Through it, Brunner examined the chaotic changes taking place in the Western world of his time, and tried to extrapolate the consequences into the future. The none-too-distant future, in fact – the year 2010. He imagined us, in this first decade or so of the 21st century, living in a world with dangerously sharp divisions between those with wealth and those lacking it, between people with an education and those without, and those with political power and the disenfranchised. He envisioned a world in which scientific progress has been hijacked for short-term profit without regard to consequences, and where the concept of what’s “fashionable” has greater weight than social progress. It’s a world where people occasionally lose all self-control, surrender to violent impulses, and kill anyone within reach until they, themselves, are taken down.
If that all sounds distressingly familiar, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.
I wondered, as I read the book, if Brunner was trying to predict a dystopic future for Humanity, or merely saying that nothing would improve between the late 1960s and the early 21st century. I’m not sure which interpretation would be more depressing. Either way, he called so many elements of the current world correctly that even some of the more obvious inaccuracies lose much of their weight. And even when he’s wrong, he’s only wrong in the details. Western civilization seems unable to define itself without an adversary, and in the ‘60s it was Communism, especially the form showing itself in Asia. So Brunner has us in an interminable conflict with an imaginary Asian power, a logical choice since, at the time of the writing the Vietnam War appeared to be endless. In our modern “real” world that adversary isn’t Asian, its Islamic extremism, a conflict that appears to be every bit as intractable. Wrong enemy, but the prediction that there would be an enemy was all too accurate.
This is a troubling vision of the future as seen from an earlier, turbulent time. Reading it now, so many years later, is a strange experience. It feels less like a late ‘60s period piece than a summary of current events. If our world isn’t doomed, as the political fear-mongers so often imply, we certainly do live in the proverbial “interesting times.” If you want to escape them for a few hours or days, this is not the book to read. This is not to say you should never read it, for it is an important work in the genre, one with much to say about the times in which Brunner wrote, and how science fiction served as a reflection of that world, one from which many people could not look away. And how, years later, that same mirror has maintained its focus. It’s eminently worth the time and trouble.
Just don’t read it right after watching the evening news.
Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968
In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.
In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.
One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.
The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.
The War of the Second Iteration series is nearly complete, with four of the five volumes available and Book Five – Setha’im Prosh – entering the editorial/revision phase. It should be available in very early 2016.
What has gone before…
Book One, The Luck of Han’anga
For Robert MacGregor and the crew of the probeship William Bartram, it’s a dream come true. Theirs will be the mission that makes the long awaited First Contact with an intelligent nonhuman species, a race of humanoid beings called the Leyra’an. But the dream soon becomes something very different when the Leyra’an prove to be more than just humanoid. They are like us to a degree that cannot be explained by chance alone. As if that isn’t complicated enough, the Leyra’an are at war, locked in a conflict that soon threatens the safety of the William Bartram and its crew. First Contact was sure to be a challenge, but no one could have expected this!
Book Two, Founders’ Effect
While Robert and Alicia MacGregor, survivors of the ill-fated probeship William Bartram, work to rebuild their lives, the Commonwealth seeks a way to end the long, bitter conflict between the Republic and the Leyra’an. But the leaders of the Republic, suspicious of the motives that drive their long-sundered kin and faced with unrest among their own people, resist the changes that must come for peace to exist. And all the while, forces unseen by either side are at work, determined to force Humanity and the Leyra’an down the road to war.
Book Three, The Plight of the Eli’ahtna
On a mission to bring aid to a beleaguered star system, John Knowles and Eb’shra Wirolen have been hurled by a freak accident across countless light years, and are marooned in uncharted space. As they work to repair their damaged ship, the Eli’ahtna, and the friends they’ve left behind launch a desperate rescue mission to bring them home, the castaways discover that although they are truly lost, they are not alone.
Book Four, The Courage to Accept
Four years of research, using the combined resources of five species of sentient beings, have brought Alicia MacGregor no closer to understanding how Humanity’s sibling species came into existence. Who was responsible for redirecting the natural course of evolution on four living worlds? Why did they do it? And can she find the answer before the Faceless render all such questions moot? For the Faceless are back with a vengeance, and as implacable as ever. The Commonwealth has known nothing but peace for almost four hundred years. Now, war is upon them. How do you prepare for something no one alive has ever seen?
Coming in 2016…
Book Five, Setha’im Prosh
The Republic is failing in its defense, and Confederation is now under a determined assault. Former enemies close ranks against a merciless enemy, one bent on the utter extinction of Humanity and any who stand with them. Humanity does not stand alone, but will even the aid of the Sibling Species and the alien T’lack be enough to stop the Faceless, an enemy no one can predict or understand?