Startide Rising.

My reaction to the Padres’ absurd deal with Eric Hosmer is up for Insiders.

David Brin’s Startide Rising is the second book in his Uplift universe, where sentient species across the galaxy (and beyond, I think) have used genetic engineering to bring “client” species to sentience themselves, in exchange for a period of indentured servitude to the patron class lasting something on the order of 100,000 years. Humans in this universe have themselves uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins but done so outside of the established order, granting their clients equal status in a shorter period of time, which has upset some of the most powerful patron races who prefer the status quo. It won Brin the first of his two Hugo Awards for Best Novel, along with The Uplift War (which I read in October), the third book in the series; this book also won the Locus and Nebula awards. It’s just not as good as the latter novel, by which point Brin seems to have improved his storycraft and his character development. And it’s really held back by the whole thing with dolphins flying spaceships.

The action of Startide Rising all takes place on one planet, Kithrup, that has no native sentient species, and is mostly covered by water. (We learn later in the book that an earlier sentient species was granted residency here to live out its senescent years, but is presumed extinct.) A dolphin-piloted vessel, the Streaker, has landed here, with a crew of all three Earth species, to hide out from galactic forces chasing it in the wake of its discovery of an enormous ghost fleet of spaceships that herald the discovery of a previously unknown, long-extinct race that may have been the fabled Progenitors of many or all current sentient species, including humans. While a fierce battle is waged overhead, the Streaker‘s crew must repair their damaged ship and await rescue or plot a dangerous escape, while some members fight internally over the best route and others explore the relatively unscathed planet.

Whereas the multi-threaded plot of the longer Uplift War involved multiple, three-dimensional characters, and created some believable tension in both action sequences and in the slower-burning intrigues, Startide Rising employs a too-large cast of disposable heroes, none of whom is interesting and some of whom verge on the ridiculous. (Among them: Charles Dart, the neo-chimp scientist whose ruthless commitment to research makes him a Spock-like caricature; and the dolphin whose name I forget who spends most of the novel sexually harassing a human crew member, which I think Brin intended to be humorous.) The novel’s very short chapters and constant shifts in perspective don’t help the narrative build any momentum, and the discovery in Kithrup’s oceans that eventually becomes a key part of the resolution is just not well written or explained.

But the bigger problem I had is the dolphins … which are still sea creatures, last time I checked. Brin jumps through all kinds of hoops to explain their presence, and I can at least suspend my disbelief in their evolution to intelligent, self-aware creatures. But they’re dolphins flying spaceships. I can accept a lot of things in science fiction, but I read this book with Tommy Shaw’s line from the Styx episode of Behind the Music stuck in my head. Shaw said he “just couldn’t write songs about robots.” Yeah, well, I just can’t get on board with dolphins – 12-13 feet long, 350 or so pounds, and, you know, without arms or legs – flying spaceships. Normally I’d say reading any series in order is an asset, but if you’re interesting in Brin at all, just skip to The Uplift War, which is better in every way and doesn’t include any dolphin characters at all.

Next up: Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace.

The Snow Queen.

Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen won the Hugo and Locus Awards for best novel in 1981, a book that is now the first in a series of four novels set on the world of Tiamat, where people are split into two races (“clans”), Summers and Winters, and travel to and from this planet from elsewhere in the universe is interrupted for long periods by the path of Tiamat’s sun around a nearby black hole. This self-contained novel focuses less on the Queen herself than on the two cousins, Moon and Sparks, whose destinies are intertwined with that of the Queen and the impending change in power from Winter to Summer.

Arienhrod is the reigning Snow Queen, but her reign will end with the coming shift to Summers and the close of the portal to the rest of colonized space provided by the black hole (which Vinge treats as a sort of wormhole). To try to preserve her power, she implants various women in the kingdom with embryonic clones, one of which will survive to become Moon. Moon and Sparks are cousins and lovers from childhood, both of whom strive to become “sibyls,” mystics who can tap into an unknown source of universal knowledge by entering a trance state when asked, but only Moon is able to do so, creating the first crack in the relationship between the two. Their paths eventually diverge, where Moon ends up off-world and appears to be permanently separated from Sparks and the rest of Tiamat, while Sparks rises quickly to a position as Arienhrod’s lover and consigliere, known as “Starbuck,” putting him on a collision course with Moon when the latter returns to Tiamat (itself named for the Babylonian sea goddess) and discovers the truth behind the planet’s source of immortality serum.

Based both on the folktale later made into a fable by Hans Christian Anderson fable and on Robert Graves’ book-length essay The White Goddess, The Snow Queen works better on a metaphorical-fabulist level than as a work of straight narrative, as neither Moon nor Sparks feels like a fully realized character, and Arienhrod, whatever she may have been prior to the events of this book, is just a narcissistic villain. The immortality serum is harvested from a sort of sea creature called a mer, and there are obvious parallels there to man’s quest for petroleum, for animal rights, and even for the way in which we dehumanize other races or religions to suit our own purposes. Moon herself is a clear nature versus nurture metaphor, one that I think is more relevant today as we learn more about how our genes determine our personalities as well as our appearances; she’s constantly confused for Arienhrod, but frequently must choose between using the power that confers and doing the ‘right’ thing for the people of Tiamat, even those who would otherwise do her harm.

The other strength of The Snow Queen is the fact that it has female characters at its center, even if they’re not all fully fleshed out; Moon is the real protagonist, a complex character fighting her own nature and ultimately handed the responsibility for the fate of an entire planet. Sparks is less three-dimensional, and unquestionably the weaker of the two cousins, pursuing power for its own sake and surrendering to an easier life that only requires that he ignore the moral questions around his choices. The society Vinge has created isn’t strictly matriarchal, but is egalitarian enough that she can populate it with strong women without lengthy explanation … which, for a sci-fi novel written in the late 1970s, was remarkable in and of itself. (She was the fourth woman to win the Hugo for Best Novel, and hers was just the fifth win for a woman author in the 28 awards to that date.)

Where The Snow Queen lacks something is in the story itself, which felt disconnected in several ways, and never really left me in any doubt about what would happen to Arienhrod at the end of the book. The event that puts Moon on a spacecraft heading off Tiamat and through the portal is a bit of a ridiculous coincidence, given how important that event and her newfound colleagues become in the later stages of the book. There’s a subplot around a female police officer who becomes commander on Tiamat for dubious reasons, creating a professional and personal journey that would have benefited from some expansion but that felt a little under-told because it was inherently secondary to the Moon-Sparks-Arienhrod plot thread. It moves, as Vinge’s writing is crisp enough to keep the story flowing, but I was never gripped or wrapped up in what might happen to the cousins.

Next up: I’ve just begin Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar, the second book in the Vorkogisan Saga and the first of her four Hugo-winning novels.

Downbelow Station.

I have a new board game review up at Paste, covering Majesty: For the Realm, the latest game from Splendor designer Marc Andre.

C.J. Cherryh was one of the last Hugo-winning authors I hadn’t read – it was just her and the two authors of The Forever Machine, widely considered the worst novel to win that award – before I cracked Downbelow Station, her 1981 book that opened her ongoing Company Wars series. I believe there’s an interesting story somewhere buried in this novel, but the atrocious writing and generic characterization just ruined the work, making it one of the most difficult novels in this series for me to finish.

Set in the years 2352-53, after an entity known as The Company has set up a network of space stations in various solar systems beyond our own, mostly orbiting planets without intelligent life. The action in the book takes place entirely on the planet Pell, both on the planet’s surface, known as Downbelow, and its space station, known by Pell’s native species, the hisa, as Upabove. The stations beyond Pell are in revolt against the Company, and Pell embarks on a futile course of neutrality between the new federation, called simply Union, and the Company, aided by a group of merchanter ships called the Fleet. The War itself has been ongoing for some time before the book opens, although we get very little of its history, other than the arrival of several ships packed with refugees on Pell, where they’re put in Q (for quarantine) and kind of left to fend for themselves because the station can’t handle this volume of new residents.

Pell is run by the Konstantin family, including Angelo, his invalid (but very alert) wife Alicia, and their sons Damon and Emilio, all of whom are opposed by the Lukas family, led by Jon, who has run operations on Downbelow for some indeterminate period. Jon Lukas is Alicia’s brother, but plots to work with Union to save his own skin in exchange for control of Pell. Meanwhile, a soldier from the Fleet ship Norway, Josh Talley, shows up on Pell and demands the treatment known as Adjustment, which wipes a person’s memory and is usually used as punishment for severe crimes. Norway itself is captained by Mallory Signy, the closest thing this book has to an interesting character, and one of the only women of any consequence within it – perhaps because Cherryh took a dim view of the pace of progress in equal rights back in the 1980s. The intrigues between the Konstantins and Lukas’ team of mutineers, the Company and the Union, the Fleet among itself and against Pell, the Fleet against Union, Talley against who-knows-who, and then the Union commander Azov against the Fleet leader Mazian except Mazian doesn’t know he’s being played.

It was never clear to me what the point of any of this was – what larger story or theme Cherryh might be trying to express here. The characters could not be less interesting; everyone is either unequivocally good or bad, with the possible exception of Signy. The hisa themselves are impossibly kind and sweet beings, less technologically advanced than humans but capable of similar levels of cognition; because they’re all so good, however, there’s no distinguishing between any of the hisa (or “Downers,” as some of the humans call them) who play significant roles in the plot. And you can easily figure out which humans are bad by how they treat the hisa – Lukas and his myrmidons treat them like something akin to slaves, less-than-human laborers whose inability to understand hate or violence just makes them inferior. The Konstantins treat the hisa with empathy and kindness, and the hisa reciprocate – mild spoiler, that relationship becomes very important near the end of the book – so you know the Konstantins are the good guys.

The other major problem with Downbelow Station is Cherryh’s leaden prose; for a book that had a fair amount of dialogue and action, it moves incredibly slowly, in part because Cherryh writes in a stilted, clipped style that often dispenses with critical parts of speech or lapses into the internal vernacular of the book without warning or any kind of explanation. The space station around Pell is apparently the size of a small city, and has a secondary network of tunnels used by the hisa who work on the station, but the descriptions thereof are so lacking that even after completing the book, I don’t have a good picture of how it looked or how the structure might have been organized.

Cherryh won the Hugo for another novel in the series, Cyteen, about another station in her universe where embryos are grown in a lab and ‘manufactured’ to be soldiers capable of undertaking specialized operations. I can only hope her writing improved by the time she wrote that book.

Next up: I’m reading David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won the Hugo two years after Downbelow Station.

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.


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.

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 and Locus plus the Nebula), 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 Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Robert Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, tied with Lois McMaster Bujold (at the moment) for the most in that category, with two of those wins coming for his iconic books Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s works, whether novels, short stories, or young adult fiction, tend to me a little lighter on the science and heavier on story, while always being readable, often compulsively so. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress diverges completely from the pattern of his other three winners – and everything else I’ve ever read from his pen – in its turgid prose and emphasis on irrelevant details, turning what might have been a compelling political allegory into a bloated sci-fi stereotype.

Set in the 2070s, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has the moon functioning as a penal colony and, strangely, an agricultural entity, growing wheat and shipping it back to earth. (Heinlein’s works often reflected the limited knowledge of the chemistry and geology of foreign bodies; in several of his novels and stories, he has humans colonizing Venus, because at the time we didn’t know how utterly inhospitable that planet’s environment is.) Mannie is the narrator, a free person on Luna who is agitating for political autonomy for the colony, and joins forces with “Mike,” a massive supercomputer that has achieved sentience without its developers realizing it; Prof, an old hand with broad knowledge of political systems; and Wyoh, full name Wyoming Knott (Wye Knott … get it?), a young woman who shows promise in an underground political rally that turns violent. These four characters plot and scheme, building a communist-style, decentralized, self-protecting network of cells that proves impenetrable for Authority forces from Earth, with Mike playing a critical role in both running scenarios and calculating odds of success and in using his pervasive presence on Luna to control and monitor communications and movements.

Heinlein has created a few iconic characters, but I associate him more than anything else with great stories – he cooks up novel situations in sci-fi settings, then puts his characters through the paces with quick prose and fast-changing plot details. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he fails on both of those latter two counts. Luna residents speak in a Russian-inflected slang, similar to the one Burgess employed in A Clockwork Orange but with more Russian loanwords, and with many articles and prepositions dropped from Mannie’s dialogue and narration, which makes for a slower, actively frustrating read.

And it turns out that revolution is kind of boring. Heinlein wastes far too much time on internal discussions of how the revolutionaries will set up their org structure, how they’ll govern if they gain independence, how they negotiate with hostile countries on Earth (which still includes a “SovUnion” … predicting the future was never Heinlein’s strong suit), or how the Lunar colony’s “catapult” to lob projectiles at earth is supposed to work. At one point he lists all of the officials in the new Lunar provisional government, many of whom are names that only appear that one time in the book.

There is a real metaphor here – and I know Heinlein disdained attempts to read into his work – about the relationship between colonizer and colony, about rights of self-determination, and about economic oppression. Heinlein wrote this in the mid-1960s as European powers were slowly and often reluctantly granting independence to their colonies in Africa, a process that wouldn’t really end until Portugal ceded Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Whether he meant the book as a criticism of such colonialism or not, it is impossible to avoid such a reading of the work given the time in which he wrote it and the exploitation of the natural resources of Africa (and previously Asia and the Americas) by paternalistic and often violently repressive European nations. It’s the most potentially interesting part of the novel, but is constantly subsumed by Heinlein’s focus on irrelevant details or dull tangents like the ones where he describes the polygamist culture of Mannie’s “warren” on Luna.

I’d read any of Heinlein’s other winners before this one, even Double Star, which lacks the philosophical weight of his other works but tells a cracking good story with a few clever twists. The early years of the Hugo Award produced some pretty questionable honorees, and I wonder if there was a Gold Glove effect here – Heinlein had won it before, and was a huge name, so this book earned some votes on that basis rather than on its own merits. It’s in the bottom half of the roughly 50 winners I’ve read so far.

The Wanderer.

Fritz Lieber won two Hugo Awards in the 1960s, first for his novella The Big Time and then for his novel The Wanderer, both of which I’ve read in the last two months. As with the early winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the early winners of the Hugo Award can be totally baffling, not least because of how incredibly dated much of the content seems. Many early Pulitzer winners are nonchalantly racist, and their stories are overly moralistic. Some of the early Hugo winners are great – the 8th, 9th, and 10th winners were Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, and Way Station, respectively – but some reflect the genre’s utter genre-ishness, descending into the sort of campy sci-fi stories I associate with pulpy magazines like Astounding Stories of Super-Science, where the emphasis was frequently on the fictional science part of science fiction. The Wanderer, which won right after Way Station, is one of the worst winners I’ve read, in part because Lieber was so obsessed with the science aspects of his setup, but even more so because the characters and story are so utterly one-dimensional.

The Wanderer is an object, initially presumed to be a planet, that appears suddenly in Earth’s sky, tearing the moon apart and causing huge shifts in the earth’s tides, including massive flooding that kills hundreds of thousands of people. Lieber shifts abruptly across at least a half dozen different narrative streams, following individuals or groups of people as they react to the Wanderer’s appearance and the immediate threats its waters pose, especially a gang of UFO-watchers who band together and try to head for higher ground, running into numerous threats from both the new object and from violent cliches marauding the countryside.

It turns out that the Wanderer is a giant spaceship populated by highly evolved cats who can read minds, and who are fleeing across hyperspace from other galactic forces and it’s just all so incredibly silly. The felines abduct two astronauts who had been working on the moon and bring them aboard the ship, with one of them developing a sort of Stockholm-syndrome attachment to his captors. Everything that happens on the Wanderer is even more ridiculous than the worst plot elements that happen on earth – among other things, Lieber appears to think women exist only to provide men with partners for sex – and the brief comedy of the cats dies out quickly when Lieber tries to give the creatures anthropomorphic personas.

Some hard science fiction at least gets by on the strength of the science itself, but other than Lieber’s early discussion of hyperspace, using the hypothesis that is now known as “quantum graphity” as a starting point for explaining faster-than-light travel across the universe, The Wanderer gives us very little of the science to compensate for the lack of interesting characters. And the responses of those characters to the catastrophic events that follow the Wanderer’s appearance are similarly uninteresting – Lieber has them focused either on survival or on sex, but doesn’t exactly give us anything new to ponder here. Wikipedia cites freelance reviewer James Nicoll’s argument that this book won the Hugo thanks to “blatant and unabashed sucking up to SF fandom” within the text. I can’t argue with this, or Nicoll’s conclusion that this is a “terrible” book.

The Big Time isn’t any better, although it at least has the virtue of being in the public domain and thus free as an e-book. Imagine if Sartre’s No Exit were about competing forces traveling the spacetime continuum, fighting a temporal “Change War” across the history of the cosmos, and meeting up in this room that may exist outside of spacetime entirely. It’s about as thrilling as it sounds.

I’m still on the same two books I mentioned in the last two posts, but since I’m discussing Hugos, the next one I’ll read is James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, which won in 1959, the year after The Big Time took the prize.


My omnibus post on all the new boardgames I saw at GenCon this year is up at Paste.

Vonda McIntyre won the sci-fi Triple Crown for her 1978 novel Dreamsnake, taking the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best novel, yet the book appears not to have the legacy those honors might have indicated. I’d never heard of the book before starting to read the list of Hugo winners, and it was probably two years before I stumbled on it in any bookstore, new or used. Combining elements of fantasy novels and post-apocalyptic stories, Dreamsnake reads today like an advanced YA fantasy novel, maybe a little too mature for younger readers, but with timeless themes and an emphasis on the protagonist finding her identity.

Snake is a healer in what we later learn is Earth after a nuclear war has ravaged the globe and left large swaths of land uninhabitable. She plies her trade with three trained snakes whom she can use to produce medications through their venom, including one, a “dreamsnake” known as Grass, whose bite induces morphine-like effects in dying people and allows them to die without pain and to dream through their final hours. In the first chapter, however, Snake’s dreamsnake is killed by fearful peasants whose child she’s trying to save, starting her on a quest to go to Center, a feudal city hostile to healers, to try to obtain another dreamsnake. The journey brings Snake into contact with a young girl, Melissa, who becomes important in the resolution of the story, and has two men following them across the landscape, one out of love and one with unknown (but presumably sinister) intent.

The quest itself is unorthodox, and doesn’t end with the usual Kill the Big Foozle climax we expect from fantasy novels (and almost every fantasy RPG ever), which may be part of why the book doesn’t seem to have the following of some other acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy novels of the era. Snake is a fascinating protagonist, however, attuned to her own feelings and those of others, while the setting’s combination of lost civilization and scientific progress (genetic modification is common, for example, with no anti-GMO zealots in sight, probably because they’re dead) is a novel one. Melissa’s subplot is hackneyed – stuff like this exists, but it’s a familiar trope in fiction – and I expected her role in the conclusion to be more significant given the time spent on Snake’s relationship with her. The clarity of McIntyre’s prose breaks down in the final three chapters, when Snake approaches and enters the “broken dome” in search of a new dreamsnake, with more abstruse descriptions of both setting and action standing in contrast to the evocative writing of the first three-fourths of the book.

Dreamsnake also tackles a lot of themes that may have been out of the norm in the 1970s but would be unremarkable today – birth control and LGBT rights among them – that make it seem more like a young adult novel forty years later. I hesitate on that description because there is some sex in the book, nothing explicit but also enough that I wouldn’t let my daughter read this until she’s older. By the time she’s in high school, she’d be mature enough for the content, and the book does feature two strong female characters (although a male character does come and save the day at the end, alas).

Next up: I’m reading John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South and am also about 80% through the audiobook version of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. The latter is narrated by the same actor who played state attorney Rupert Bond on The Wire.