Andersonville.

Andersonville was the nickname given to a Confederate prison in Georgia that held roughly 45,000 Union prisoners in an enclosure that had no shelter from the elements, no supply of clean water, and was designed to hold a fraction of that number. Nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died at Andersonville, mostly of scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, starvation, and exposure. So of course there’s a monument on the site … dedicated to the prison’s commander.

Mackinlay Kantor spent nearly two decades researching the prison, reading first- and second-hand accounts of life there, before publishing his book Andersonville, which won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. (I think it’s the second-longest winner, behind The Executioner’s Song.) The novel opens with the construction of the prison, or the animal pen that posed as a prison, and ends at the conclusion of the Civil War, with prisoners freed, slaves emancipated, and Wirz arrested. Kantor’s attention to detail and attempts to accurately portray real people as characters in his book is a marvel, and a great example for anyone looking to write historical fiction around real events and personas. It’s also a slog to read, far too detailed both in the horrors of life in the prison and on the back stories of the fictional Union soldiers Kantor created, to the point where yet another death from scorbutic diarrhea loses its impact on the reader.

Kantor frames the book with the narrative of a local family, the Claffeys, who live very close to the prison, and whose family friend comes to stay with them while working at the prison’s makeshift hospital. The Claffeys are ridiculously idealized white southerners, the mythical kind slave owner who treats the human beings he owned as if they were voluntary employees working for housing and food. It does put Ira Claffey, the father, in direct contrast to the evils of the prison, as does the fact that he has lost three sons to the war and yet does not share the antipathy towards Union soldiers that Wirz and his boss, General John Winder (also a real person), did.

Interspersed with the Claffey story are two threads revolving around the prison itself, one from the perspective of the prisoners themselves, one from the perspective of Wirz, who comes across as somewhat helpless to ameliorate conditions at Andersonville but also has no compassion for the starving, suffering men in his charge. The stories of the prisoners appear to be here to give names and faces to the individuals; humans have an easier time understanding the suffering of one person than the suffering of thousands, so perhaps fleshing out their histories increases the reader’s appreciation of the human tragedy of the prison. Some of these back stories are interesting on their own, but very few have any bearing on the main plot around the prison beyond pointing out the utter pointlessness of war, and the irony that men who survived threats before the war and then avoided death on the battlefield would waste away in a prison or, in one case, die because one of the prison guards got trigger-happy.

The scenes in the prison vary in their potency and ability to stir the reader’s interest, with the subplot, apparently based on real events, of the prisoners policing themselves when a gang called the Raiders start to rule the camp through violence and intimidation. The Regulators, as the good guys called themselves, restored a semblance of order in the chaos of the prison, and the story Kantor crafted around the group coming together and defeating the Raiders is the best subplot in the book for the way he draws the characters themselves and how the Regulators form themselves into a functioning team. (Wikipedia has an article on the Raiders that gives more credit to Wirz in encouraging the Regulators than Kantor does.)

Although books of this length and level of detail still appear today, Andersonville feels dated even if we give him a pass for the portrayal of the slaveowner or the casual racism within the book. It’s bloated with the back stories of the prisoners, and there isn’t a through line to connect those stories, Wirz, and the Claffeys beyond the existence of the prison. The story ends because the war ends. Maybe that was Kantor’s point – that there’s no closure or resolution. Some men survived, many didn’t, and there isn’t a good reason for any of it.

As I mentioned on Instagram yesterday, this completes my reading of all 90 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel/Fiction winners.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo-winning novel This Immortal.

The Obelisk Gate.

N.K. Jemisin won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel for her 2015 book The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, set well into the future, on an Earth that is plagued by massive tectonic shifts that result in lengthy Seasons where nearly all life on the surface is extinguished and humans must huddle underground to wait the Season out. (You might call this “cli-fi,” although it’s not clear that this kind of climate change is caused by humans … at least, not through two books.) The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award again this year, but while it follows the first in chronology and setting, it has a thoroughly different tenor than the first book did.

Where The Fifth Season followed three distinct storylines set apart in time, The Obelisk Gate focuses on just two simultaneous threads: Essen’s life in the underground commune (“comm”) Tarima, which finds itself under threat from within and without; and her daughter Nassun’s journey with Essun’s husband south toward a comm where the father, Jija, hopes his daughter will be “cured” of her gift of orogeny – a sort of magical, innate ability to alter the very molecules of one’s environment, including starting tectonic shifts and communicating with the orbiting obelisks of unknown origin. A massive Season is imminent, likely caused by Essun’s former lover Alabaster, who created the Rift that provoked this season but is now himself turning to stone as a result. Essun wants to find her daughter, but as an orogene in a world where such people are often killed (even by their Guardians) when a Season approaches, she’s also driven toward self-preservation. Nassun, meanwhile, is barely scratching the surface of her own powers, but when she and Jija arrive at the southern comm, she meets the former Guardian Schaffa, who recognizes her limitless potential and begins to train her even as Jija believes she’s going to be made ‘normal.’

The twin but parallel plot strands make The Obelisk Gate a much more straightforward read than its predecessor, in which time seemed deliberately obscured from the reader and the relationship between the three subplots far from clear. That conceit ended up working in the book’s favor, increasing the tension (and perhaps baiting the reader’s impatience), so that The Obelisk Gate feels like a book in the same universe by a different author – not better or worse, just different, more conventional, and thus more dependent on the nature of the two primary characters.

So where Jemisin has created a grim, realistic, almost tangible setting for these books that elevated The Fifth Season, here in the middle book of the series, her weaker characterization becomes more of a problem. Essun and Nassun are both good people, with credible emotional reactions to setbacks and obstacles, but neither is particularly interesting or compelling; you root for these characters because they represent hope, for themselves and humanity, not out of any direct empathy for or interest in either of them. Some of the secondary characters have that interest, such as the complex motivations that drive Schaffa or the bizarre nature of the stone-eaters Alabaster and Hoa, but the two main women lack the texture or depth to carry the book.

Instead, the story itself has to do all of the lifting, and it’s mostly up to the task, although there’s still some Middle Book Syndrome as Jemisin gets further into her world-building and explains more of what’s happening in the book’s present. The nature of the Obelisks is at least partly explained, and she sets up what I assume will be the narrative of the third book, The Stone Sky, how Essun and Nassun will interact with the Obelisks to save the world (or at least parts of it). It’s compelling enough to keep me reading, but I thought this was a step down in ambition and in characterization from the first book.

Next up: I’ve finally begun MacKinlay Cantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In This Our Life.

Every decision, right or wrong, must be reached alone, and enacted in complete loneliness.

Ellen Glasgow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1941 for her novel In This Our Life, which was adapted into a 1942 film starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland that altered key plot points while causing controversy by keeping the novel’s portrayal of racial discrimination in the South. The novel is depressing as hell, really, as nobody ever really gets what s/he wants out of life within its pages, despite the fact that the two generations follow entirely different paths in search of an elusive happiness.

The novel centers not on the two sisters played by Davis and de Havilland, but on their father, Asa Timberlake, who is married to a possibly-hypochondriac woman, Lavinia, in a totally loveless marriage to which he feels honor-bound because of her illness and their modest financial condition. He’s in love with a widow, Kate, whom he’s known for decades, and who keeps two dogs of which he’s also very fond, as Lavinia never permitted him to have a dog in the house. His two daughters, strangely named Roy and Stanley, are polar opposites to each other, Roy the practical, mature older sister, married to a young doctor named Peter, while Stanley is spoiled, immature, and demanding, using her looks to try to get whatever she wants, even if what she wants belongs to Roy. Stanley is due to marry Craig as the book opens, but ends up running off with Peter, setting in motion a series of calamities that ruin almost every life involved, including Asa’s.

The racial discrimination story is secondary to the novel’s plot, but by far the most interesting aspect of the book today, given the change in social mores around divorce and infidelity since the novel’s publication. Parry is an ambitious young black man, the son of one of the Timberlakes’ servants, who wants to become a lawyer and is hopeful that Lavinia’s cousin William Fitzroy will help finance his education. Parry works occasionally as a driver for the families, but when Stanley, driving drunk, hits a family and kills a young girl, she and her mother conspire to frame Parry for the crime – something which Asa can’t abide, which triggers the one real inflection point in the story, where he’s forced to consider taking an action against his family for what seems to be the first time in his life.

Glasgow’s prose around Parry and his family is dated, but the ideas are still relevant – social and economic discrimination, differential treatment by law enforcement, the understanding that opportunities for black youths would be limited in a still-segregated south. The racism of the whites in the book, especially Lavinia and William, is less overt than even in contemporary Pulitzer winners, but no less insidious for its talk of keeping black people “in their place,” and discouraging Parry from aiming at a profession because, in reality, the idea of an educated black man scares them. This subplot stays in the background of most of the book, but it’s far more interesting than watching the machinations of the pampered, entitled Stanley, and the way everyone – including her uncle William, with whom there are intimations of inappropriate attentions (or worse) – bows to her wishes. She damages everything she touches and has the audacity to put on a “why me?” act, which directs all the reader’s sympathy to Roy, who at least has some complexity to her character and shows growth through the series of crises precipitated by her husband’s betrayal.

Apropos of nothing else, I enjoyed this quote, which Roy says to her father about Craig:

I mean, he notices. He can see the color in the sky, and he knows that the change from baseball to football isn’t the only way to tell when it is autumn. Some men don’t know any more than that about seasons.

I’ve got just two Pulitzer winners left to read – James Cozzens’ Guard of Honor and Mackinley Kantor’s Andersonville.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, which appears on the Guardian list of the 100 best novels ever written.

The Westing Game.

A mystery novel aimed at kids, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is perfectly charming even for (much) older readers. I tackled it to vet it for my daughter (who then said she wasn’t interested, but I bet she’ll come back to it at some point), finding myself caught up in how the author packed such a clever, intricate plot in a short novel. It won the Newbery Medal for the year’s best work of children’s literature; I think it’s only the fifth winner I’ve read in its entirety (along with The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, The Graveyard Book, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). Although it takes a temporary turn towards the dark in the middle, I’ll spoil it just a little bit to say that Raskin wraps up the entire story very nicely, and shows the reader just how many clues were right there the entire time for the characters and the audience alike.

The start of the book is a bit of a slow burn, but once you get about a third of the way into it, the pace picks up dramatically, once the long setup is done. Samuel Westing, a reclusive millionaire and owner of Westing Paper Products, dies right at the beginning of the book, and has set up an elaborate scheme for his sixteen “heirs” – most of whom are unrelated to him and surprised they’re even mentioned – to compete in teams of two for the prize of the inheritance. Many of the heirs have unspoken connections to Westing or his family; some are in the apartment building where the story takes place, Sunset Towers, under false names. Each team gets a set of five one-word clues and must try to follow the oblique instructions in Westing’s will to identify which of the heirs killed Westing and thus win the prize.

The star of the story is the youngest heir, “Turtle” Wexler, a mischievous, astute thirteen-year-old girl who will kick the shins of anyone who pulls her hair braid, and who plays second billing to her older sister Angela within the family. Turtle and a judge, J.J. Ford, an African-American woman who is open about her connection to Westing, do the bulk of the real investigating, Turtle to win (and also to make money in the stock market), Ford for the thrill of the hunt. The narrative jumps around to other pairs as well, which I think helps to obfuscate the actual answer to the mystery by giving the reader too many ideas about the various clues, enough to send me in the wrong direction for about half of the book. There’s no other character as magnetic as Turtle, who seemed to me to be a direct ancestor of another of my favorite child protagonists, Flavia de Luce.

The real gift of this book is how Raskin has her characters playing with words, thinking about their meanings, the order, even messing with pronunciations or misspellings, all to try to decipher the clues. It’s a subtle encouragement to the reader to do the same – to expand one’s thinking about how we use words, and how tiny shifts can alter the meanings of anything we say or write, including, to pick one relevant example, the irregular will of an eccentric millionaire.

There’s one scene that might be disturbing for younger readers, although it’s eventually resolved in a way that should satisfy everybody. The remainder plays out as a fairly straight mystery novel, with a structure that certainly recalled Agatha Christie’s ‘bigger’ novels, where she uses a larger cast of suspects and moves the narrative around frequently with shorter chapters. The Westing Game feels in spots like a mystery for adults that was slimmed down – not dumbed down, just made shorter – for younger readers, given how quickly the narrative jumps, often with one character noticing something or coming to a conclusion right before the switch. It works, and might keep younger readers more engaged, although given how many mysteries I’ve read for adults I did get the occasional sense of watching a video with too many jump cuts.

Next up: I’m halfway through Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, her second novel, written before the Neapolitan quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend.

Gateway.

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 novel Gateway won the sci-fi awards triple crown the following year (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) and was even loosely adapted into a computer game in 1992 – but it’s kind of lousy as a work of science fiction. Pohl ignores much science that was known or understood at the time, and other elements have become even more ridiculous over the last few decades, and he handwaves a lot of stuff away by filing it all under the mysterious technology of a lost alien civilization. If you can suspend your disbelief of all of this nonsense, though, he’s actually telling a pretty good war story that delves into issues of PTSD and survivor’s guilt while also looking into the risks that desperate people might willingly take to win the equivalent of a lottery prize.

Set at some unknown date in the not terribly distant future, Gateway follows the story of a successful explorer named Robinette Broadhead (variously referred to as Bob, Robbie, etc. depending on who’s talking) who left a dead-end life on earth as a food ‘miner’ to go to the asteroid known as Gateway. Within this story, humans have discovered the artifacts of a vanished alien race, known as the Heechees, who left tunnels on Venus and built a space station by hollowing out a large asteroid, from which they appear to have launched intergalactic exploratory missions. Humans have now occupied Gateway, which is run by a supranational corporation, and send willing explorers out on missions on the ships that they found docked in Gateway. Each ship’s destination is preprogrammed – changing it blows up the ship – and the destinations vary widely, with some ships returning with valuable weapons or tools, some returning with nothing, and some never returning at all or returning with the crew dead of starvation or worse.

We meet Robinette as he’s talking to Sigfrid, an artificial intelligence psychotherapist (everything is automated!), and it becomes apparent that whatever happened on his last mission has left him with guilt about something – even though he came back to a significant reward. The narrative alternates between short chapters of his conversations with Sigfrid and longer flashbacks detailing his tenure on Gateway, including the months where he stalled rather than jump on an outbound ship. Those passages cover a common theme in dystopian sci-fi, where characters with no hope for adequate employment, money, or food end up taking on enormous risks for a shot at a life-altering payout. It’s more powerful than the conversations with Sigfrid, which read like an unintentional parody of Freudian psychoanalysis and become overbearing, like we’re getting a commentary track on the main story. Pohl has crafted a small set of characters, centered on Robinette, who face long odds with a high risk of a very unpleasant death and still choose to board these ships because it’s their one chance at a decent life. (Pohl even has characters yearning for “Full Medical,” which sounds a lot like really good health insurance.) The explorations that matter in this book aren’t the ones on the Heechee ships, but of how these characters respond to this extreme scenario, with evidence of the risks and rewards arriving daily.

The science-y stuff here is really silly. Einstein showed that nothing can exceed the speed of light, and anything with mass would see that mass increase without bound as it approached the speed of light. Pohl has humans living in tunnels on Venus, even though scientists had known for at least ten years that the climate of that planet was totally inhospitable to our sort of life. The infrastructure of Gateway itself would have worked better if Pohl had tried to explain it less – the point isn’t how it works, but what such an environment does to the characters. Of all of the sideshows in the book, the idea that space tourists would come to Gateway, which has no apparent attraction for visitors beyond its existence, rang the most true – it’s about bragging rights, or signaling one’s wealth, both universal values that would still be in full force in Pohl’s bleak vision of our future.

The conclusion, where Pohl reveals just what happened on Robinette’s last mission, is very clever even if (I think) it also plays fast and loose with the science, where Robinette made a choice that made him the sole survivor without him realizing that that’s what the outcome would be – and now he carries the emotional scars from it. You can draw easy parallels to the wartime experiences of soldiers who’ve had to make decisions that cost fellow fights their lives, or who managed to escape a situation that killed many of their comrades, which gives Gateway a war-novel feel without the war. Even the missions themselves could work as allegories for the kinds of sorties Air Force pilots might have been asked to make in mid-century wars, or excursions on land into enemy territory with high rewards but high risk of capture or death. If you can get past the silly science, there’s quite a good story underneath here.

Next up: I’m just about done with J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

Years of Grace.

I’m deep in the forgotten winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – mostly titles that won while the award was still called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, as it was until 1948. At least a dozen winners from that period are either out of print or only available for an exorbitant cost (likely intended only for sale to academic readers and libraries). T.S. Stribling’s The Store was one of the latter, but the dated, racist language in the book more than explained why it’s almost completely forgotten today. Margaret Ayer Barnes’ 1931 winner Years of Grace, also only available at a ridiculous price ($42 on amazon as I write this), differs greatly from some of the other ephemeral winners of its era, in that it’s actually a fine book that holds up adequately despite the 80-plus years since its publication. The moral compass of the protagonist (and, I presume, the author) seems old-fashioned, but the same is true of novels from the Regency and Victorian eras of England, and no one seems to mind those. Instead, Years of Grace, seen through today’s lens, reads as a contemporary look at the changing roles of women in American middle- and upper-class society at a time when their rights were starting to expand.

The plot here is a bit by-the-numbers, salvaged by the rich development of the main character, Jane Ward. The three sections of Years of Grace cover three distinct periods of her life: her teenage years, where she has a girlish crush on a young French artist, but their plans to marry are scotched by their parents; the early part of her marriage, where she nearly consummates an affair with her best friend’s wayward husband; and when her children are grown and similar extracurricular activities complicate their lives and Jane’s as well. Jane evolves over the course of the novel, from innocent and somewhat flighty teenager to a young mother feeling hemmed in by her solid but unexciting marriage to her later years, where she takes the role of her own parents but lacks the same power over her children. The parallels in situations are too on the nose, and the transition from her teenage years to her ennui in marriage is rather abrupt – it’s never clear whether the problem is Jane playing “what if” in her mind or if she just married a really boring man.

The real flaw in Years of Grace, however, is that there’s so much talking and not a lot of doing. In the third section, when there’s a scandal among Jane’s children (a plot device that also appears in another Pulitzer winner, Ellen Glasgow’s In This Our Life), it’s shocking not because of what the characters involved have done, but because the book has been so sedate up until that point. Jane’s brief dalliance with Andre while they were still teenagers feels like nothing to us today, and would feel the same to her children if they knew. The mores of her generation and those of the the next generation are worlds apart, and she can’t make the adjustment – that, in and of itself, is enough to fill a novel. Barnes’ heroine makes difficult choices, but because she pulls up short, her subsequent regrets seem overly dramatic:

“When you love people, you’ve got to be decent. You want to be decent. You want to be good. Just plain good – the way you were taught to be when you were a little child. Love’s the greatest safeguard in life against evil. I won’t do anything, Jimmy, if I can possibly help it, that will keep me from looking anyone I love in the eye.”

Barnes’ prose is the novel’s other strength beyond Jane’s characterization, as the book flows quickly despite a relative paucity of action. Perhaps writing ten or twenty years later would have allowed to her to do more with the character – to have her put her marriage into real danger, or to go further in the mental what-if gymnastics that bother her throughout her married life. Perhaps some of the more dismal entries in the early years of the Pulitzer Prize have made me go soft, but I actually didn’t mind Years of Grace even with those flaws. It’s a quaint read, but a well-written one, with a main character you will like even if you don’t agree with her choices or feelings.

Aside: There’s very little about the book available online, but it makes an incongruous appearance on a Real Simple list of 50 books recommended by modern authors. It didn’t even merit a full review in the New York Times when it was first published, appearing as the first review in a two-page collection of shorter writeups.

Next up: I’m reading Ellen Glasgow’s In This Our Life, which I mentioned above.

The New York Trilogy.

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is a collection of three novellas that are just barely connected enough that I would call this one novel, although it certainly bends the boundaries of the form. Each part starts out as a detective story, but turns into something else entirely, exploring questions of identity and meaning, with the three protagonists devolving into madness as their “cases” go awry. The work appears on the Guardian‘s 2003 list of the hundred greatest novels ever written, which is the only reason I even knew of its existence.

The first novella, City of Glass, covers a writer named Daniel Quinn who works under a pseudonym, William Wilson, about a detective named Max Work. Quinn gets a strange call one night asking for the detective Paul Auster, and after dismissing the first call, receives another one a few nights later and decides to play along, pretending to be Auster and taking on the case, which involves protecting a young man, Peter Stillman, from his abusive father as the latter is about to be released from prison. Peter speaks in a unique, stilted fashion, the result of the abuse his father, who was gripped by a sort of religious mania, put him through. Quinn decides to take the job, following the father, also named Peter Stillman, from Grand Central Station on the day of his release to the flophouse where he settles, eventually forcing a meeting with the older man, while also tracking down Paul Auster, the writer (not a detective), who is working himself on an article on the narrator character of Don Quixote. Quinn assumes the identity of the Auster-detective and goes undercover to an absurd extent, such that the case gets away from him and he begins to lose his own sense of self.

Ghosts, the shortest of the three acts, covers a detective named Blue, who is hired by the unseen White to stake out a target named Black. Every character has a color for his/her name – sometimes just part of the name, sometimes that’s all we get – but Blue, like Quinn in the first story, veers off the path, as he finds that watching Black day in and day out seems increasingly pointless, and eventually he decides to try to stalk White and find out what the purpose of the assignment is. It doesn’t go well, as you might imagine.

The Locked Room has the most conventional narrative of the three stories, and works less like a detective story and more like a psychological study. The unnamed narrator finds out that his childhood friend Fanshawe, with whom he’s had no contact for a decade, has disappeared, asking his wife to contact the narrator if he doesn’t reappear within a certain length of time and to have the narrator look through his collected writings. Fanshawe’s unpublished works turn out to be critical masterpieces and become commercially successful enough to allow the narrator, who quickly falls for and marries Fanshawe’s wife, to walk away from his own life and become Fanshawe’s agent, of a sort, as the steward of his friend’s various works. Of course, Fanshawe isn’t dead, and the narrator can’t leave well enough alone, especially once rumors start that Fanshawe is just a fabrication, so he tries to track his friend down despite explicit instructions not to do so. The resolution of this ties the three stories together in an unexpected and (by design) incomplete fashion, which I would argue makes the three novellas together a single work of narrative fiction despite the incongruities between stories.

Postmodern with metafictional elements, The New York Trilogy plays with layers of reality to push the three protagonists through varying levels of internal and external rebellion, against their senses of self and against the perception that they lack free will in a universe that is forcing action upon them. Blue and the nameless narrator both try to find the scriptwriters directing their lives. Quinn, himself an author, is presented with an entirely new script, but becomes obsessed with its narrative to the point that he completely loses himself, as if he’s playing a role that consumes him. In all three stories, Auster gives us less-than-reliable narrators and causes to doubt whether the antagonists or their backstories are real. Even when he unites the three narratives in the last few pages of The Locked Room (with a few scattered hints before that), the truth remains ambiguous – it’s possible that the stories all share a character, or that a character from one story created one of the others. It’s a work that asks questions without answering them, but still manages to grab the reader with the detective-novel paradigm and determination (if not entirely hinged) of its lead characters. I’m a devoted fan of noir detective fiction; this might be more gris than noir, but it works well with its foundation.

Next up: I’m reviewing out of order, but I’m currently on Frederik Pohl’s Hugo & Nebula Award-winning novel Gateway.

The Uplift War.

I have a bit of a strange history with David Brin’s The Uplift War, the second of his two novels in this series to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel; I first got it late in 2015 as an ebook when it was on sale for $2, but when I tried to read it in January of 2016, I found I couldn’t get into it at all and bailed after about 35 pages. What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that I was horrendously sick – regular readers will remember that I had to push the top 100 prospects package back by a week that year, as I ran a fever of up to 103 for six days and ended up needing a powerful and risky antibiotic to knock out the infection. I read a few other books in that span, including The Caine Mutiny (never reviewed, but I did love it) and The Vorrh (which I later reviewed in tandem with its sequel), so I figured Brin’s book maybe just wasn’t for me.

I gave it another shot on my AFL trip this year and ended up flying through it, so clearly the problem was me (or my illness), not the book. It’s long and the story is somewhat involved, but despite Brin’s background as an astrophysicist and heavy use of his own jargon, the prose is surprisingly readable, with some help from an average chapter length of about six pages. There are certainly aspects of old-school sci-fi here that make the book feel dated, including an overreliance on things like intergalactic travel and a universe full of advanced races, but at its heart, The Uplift War is a clever and often exciting war story that works in an anti-war message by having the underdogs’ intelligence and flexible thinking carry the day.

Uplift is a core concept in this book and in the other five novels in the series (Startide Rising, the preceding novel, also won the Hugo), where various races in the Five Galaxies are allowed to raise lower, “pre-sentient” species to a higher level of sapience and consciousness. In the chronology of the stories, humans have already done this with dolphins and chimpanzees, with the latter, dubbed “neo-chims,” playing a significant role in this novel. For advanced species, becoming patrons to client species is apparently a very big deal, although I didn’t quite grasp what tangible benefits accrue to the patrons.

The Uplift War takes place entirely on a remote planet, Garth, controlled by humans and neo-chims, which is then invaded by birdlike creatures called Gudru who act and speak in triplets, with control of the planet somehow very important to their long-term plans for galactic dominance or something like that. (It gets a little too Amazing Stories for my tastes with this stuff and the various alien races.) This leads to a complex web of subplots involving human, neo-chim, and Tymbrimi (another alien race) characters who have variously woven traps and schemes to trick the invaders into, among other things, hunting for a pre-sentient species known as Garthlings hiding in the hills of the planet. The Tymbrimi are apparently big practical jokers, and the long con forms a large part of two of the subplots in the novel, which generally follows the resisting forces with occasional diversions to the three Suzerains from the Gudru who are leading the effort to control the invaded planet.

The setup is long and assumes some foreknowledge of the Uplift universe, which probably didn’t help my fever-addled brain on my first attempt to read the book, but once the narrative shifts focuses to individual characters, who end up working mostly in pairs, the pace picks up substantially and the work itself starts to look more like a classic war novel. It’s not War and Peace, but you can see the influence that work had on Brin with the multi-threaded narrative, emphasis on political and psychological aspects to the fight, and the panoply of side characters who dart in and out of the text. I found much of the race-specific material on aliens and neo-chims to be tiresome and reminiscent of pulpy sci-fi from the 1950s and 1960s, and could have done without Brin’s use of some florid vocabulary (I would say I looked up at least fifty words here that either weren’t in the Kindle dictionary or showed up as “poetic/literary” or “archaic”), but got caught up in two of the stories in particular because he created interesting, three-dimensional characters and managed to build plenty of tension even when it was clear the characters would have survive at least until the end of the book.

Brin, as an astrophysicist, had to be aware of the absurdity of his intergalactic setting, but fares better with some of the futuristic technologies he puts on the ground in the book, especially in terms of sensors and “globes” that resemble RFID devices. He actually does much better in exploring the psychologies of his different races, especially where the Gudru’s lack of a sense of humor ends up costing them in the fight against resisting primates. If you can get past some of the silly trappings around the aliens and neo-chims – fortunately, we don’t get any neo-dolphin characters – there’s a surprisingly good story underneath.

Next up: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist who worked at Google in that role for several years.

A Case of Conscience.

James Blish’s novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959, the fifth time the award had been given out, kicking off a run of books that are still considered classics today: Starship Troopers, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, and Way Station won the next five Hugos, and Dune won two years after that streak. It was a golden age of science fiction, particularly of sci-fi novels that tackled major philosophical themes; Blish’s novel, his only winner, remains one of the few novels to win the award that uses a science fiction plot to examine questions of religion and morality. It’s a curious work, a novella that was then doubled in length to turn it into a novel, and has some of the stitched-together quality you’d expect, but also gives the reader a fairly compelling central story that centers on a Jesuit priest’s crisis of conscience while also working in issues around colonialism, exploitation, and violent political movements.

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is the story’s protagonist and moral center, one of a group of four humans on the planet Lithia, assigned the task of determining whether it is safe to open the planet for human contact. The rest of the crew comprises three scientists of varying views on religion and morality, including the rationalist/atheist Cleaver, a physicist who discovers that the planet is a potential source of raw material for the production of nuclear weapons. The Lithians, reptilian creatures who walk on two legs, live in a utopian society where their culture and language lack words for conflict, dissent, or crime … but they are also a completely secular society, without any concept of religion or God. Father Ruiz-Sanchez begins to suspect that the planet itself was created by Satan, as it is a near-perfect attack on core principles of Catholic theology, and argues that the planet should be “quarantined” from all contact with earth. The team is unable to agree on a recommendation, and Ruiz-Sanchez acknowledges that Cleaver is likely to get his wish in the end. The Lithians, unaware of any of this conversation, give Ruiz-Sanchez a parting gift as they leave: an embryo (in an egg) of a Lithian, in a special container designed to allow the fetus to survive the journey back to Earth. (Lithians do not raise their young as humans do, which is explained at length in the text.)

In part two, the Lithian embryo becomes the grown Egtverchi, a ten-foot tall saurian biped who experiences a whole new level of culture shock as he’s exposed to human civilization. Possessed of a tremendous capacity to learn, he quickly absorbs most human knowledge, and I think it’s fair to say he’s not terribly impressed by it. He becomes a pop phenomenon, getting his own reality TV show, and encouraging his viewers to act on their discontent with their jobs, their government, and so on. His following is large enough to lead to mayhem in the streets, all while work to convert Lithia into a giant lithium deuteride factory continues fifty light-years away. Father Ruiz-Sanchez, meanwhile, is charged with heresy, faces an audience with the Pope, and comes back at the UN’s request to deal with the situation Egtverchi has created.

The novel is brief, just over 200 pages, but packs a lot of ideas into its two sections. The first part, originally published on its own, is a sort of thought experiment: Blish appears to have been very familiar with Catholic teachings and created a civilization in the Lithians that would refute that doctrine, such as that a peaceful world would not be possible without God. Blish gives Ruiz-Sanchez this challenge, and forces him to confront it and try to convince at least one of his skeptical colleagues to agree to his plan to close off the planet from human contact. Without the second half, however, it’s fairly flat, devoid of any tension, and the potential risks from Ruiz-Sanchez’s scenario are far from evident. A Case of Conscience needs Egtverchi to bring the priest’s concerns to life, and he does so in stark, shocking ways, stirring up an angry populist mob in a storyline that seems to presage everything from Fight Club to the 2016 U.S. election.

Blish also opens the door to discussions about imperialism and exploitation of colonies with the setup of his novel, as humans have developed the technology to get to Lithia and have made numerous scientific discoveries that the Lithians, while an advanced society, have not. Lithia itself has very little iron, limiting their progress in some key aspects of physics or chemistry, adding to the sense that humans are the ‘superior’ race, which, in Cleaver’s mind, means there’s no problem with showing up on someone else’s planet and plundering it of resources, even if the cost is environmental destruction or other massive disruptions of the native species. The theme isn’t entirely fleshed out here because the second half of the novel takes place almost entirely on Earth, but the questions lay open in the text, and given that Blish wrote it in the 1950s while western countries still held nearly all of Africa and swaths of southern Asia as colonies, I imagine that was at least a model for him in devising the structure of his universe.

I won’t spoil the resolution of A Case for Conscience other than to say that I enjoyed its ambiguity; I think it’s a perfect way to get around the religious question involved in the conclusion without dismissing it entirely. Blish’s portrayal of Ruiz-Sanchez is thoughtful and respectful in a way that most science fiction authors’ words aren’t; many sci-fi novels ignore religion entirely or portray it as an artifact of the past, something sloughed off over time or destroyed by the progress of science. Such twists tend to miss the importance of religion to human culture (for better and worse) and how religion gives many people an answer to the meaning of life. Blish, whom the introduction to the version I read labels as an agnostic, deserves credit for creating a man of the cloth who is credible, well-drawn, and appropriately flawed.

Next up: David Brin’s The Uplift War, another Hugo winner.

The Store.

Thomas Stribling’s The Store appears to be one of the most obscure winners on the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel/Fiction list; the only copy in the entire state of Delaware was at the University, and a friend in Boston reported that she could only find one copy in the area, with the other two books in this trilogy completely unavailable. You can buy it new, for $32 on Kindle or $40 in paperback, from the University of Alabama press, pricing that I interpret as an acknowledgment that if you’re looking for this book, you either really have to have it for school/work reasons, or you’re a completist trying to read the entire Pulitzer list. The cost may be the main reason the book is hard to find, but the text itself, while actually quite funny for its era and full of interesting, eccentric characters, is incredibly problematic in the pervasive racism and anti-Semitism, not just in the characters’ views but often in the descriptive prose itself. Language that may have been acceptable when Stribling wrote the book in 1931 or in the time of the book’s setting right after the Civil War is offensive today, even if you want to make a sort of park-adjustment for the context in which it was written. There are white characters in The Store who have what would have been seen as progressive views on race, but it’s hard to read it now without thinking of how backwards the rural south was for decades after the end of slavery.

The protagonist of the book is Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, who served in the Civil War but is left at odds and ends by the conclusion of the conflict, and eventually takes a job in a local general store in Florence, Alabama, with an eye towards eventually borrowing enough capital to open a store of his own. Vaiden runs afoul of his boss, who cheated Vaiden out of thousands of dollars about twenty years earlier, by refusing to short-change the black customers who come to the store, which is about as far as any white character gets in the book to an egalitarian view of the races. Eventually, the scrupulously honest Vaiden abandons his scruples when he finds a chance to get even with his former nemesis, stealing goods enough to cover his losses and then some, opening a store of his own and buying real estate, sparking a back-and-forth battle that claims at least one life and doesn’t end particularly well for anyone involved.

Along the way, Vaiden’s wife passes away – he’s really not that upset about this, as he’s constantly thinking about her as “his fat wife” – and he ends up trying to reunite with Drusilla, a woman who spurned him the night before their wedding many years before and whom he later courted and dumped for revenge. It’s not much of a romance, and when Vaiden does get married near the end of the book, it’s to Drusilla’s daughter, with this whole Electra-complex subtext that makes the result rather creepy to read.

The shame about the racism, the anti-Semitism, and the unromantic love story is that there’s a lot of dry humor and satire within the book; it’s a portrait of the postwar south, but not a nostalgic or favorable one. Stribling gives his black characters some actual depth, and the conversations they have with each other about how they don’t get the same treatment from the law that white suspects who commit the same or worse crimes do applies today just as it did a century-plus ago. Vaiden is by no means a hero; his principles shift according to his needs and circumstances, and it’s revealed over the course of the book that he committed a serious, violent crime of his own but escaped prosecution because he was white and the victim black. Economic injustice is everywhere in the story, including the fact that poor black farmers paid more for less when whites ran the only stores in town. (Vaiden seems to reflect the postwar, tacit racism, in contrast to the overt racism of many of his neighbors, as he treats his black and white tenants equally, and agrees to help one black farmer pay for artificial fertilizer to try to increase his yields.) The argument for Stribling here is that nothing about the story is unrealistic for its setting of 1870s; I’m sure the n-word was prevalent, and race relations were at least this bad in the backwoods of the south, but because the book was written in a time when blacks were still treated as inferior in every walk of life, the text is too soft on its subjects. It’s a quick read, but an uncomfortable one, to unclear benefit.

Next up: I’m most of the way through another Pulitzer winner, Margaret Ayer Barnes’ charming if dated Years of Grace.