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.

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.

Dreamsnake.

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.

Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.