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.

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.

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.

The Windup Girl.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best sci-fi novel of that year, manages to be both fantastical and realistic, with an all-too-believable setting in a world after a series of environmental catastrophes where food supplies are controlled by “calorie” companies and nations have fallen under their extortionary practices. The title character is a genetically modified human, grown in a lab in Japan as a sort of modern servant and concubine, whose mistreatment will lead to the fall of the Thai government and a shift in the area’s ongoing power struggle. Bacigalupi’s story is violent and his worldview bleak, but in a time when the world’s largest economy is pulling out of a worldwide agreement to try to slow man’s effect on the global climate, it seems entirely plausible – and his take on corporate ownership of genes and species doesn’t seem quite so cynical as it might have even seven years ago.

The multifacted plot gives us Anderson Lake, ostensibly an American managing a foreign factory in Thailand but in reality a researcher hunting for unusual genes and species bred or developed by Thai scientists – especially the location of the country’s seedbank, a potential goldmine of new genes for Lake’s employer to use to create new species of grains and other plants to resist the latest waves of diseases and pests. (Bagicalupi has created a rather terrifying-sounding array of these biological threats, including the evocative “blister rust.”) The factory Lake oversees uses animal power to create kink-springs that are used in this post-petroleum world as portable power sources, while also growing species of algae to help generate power to be stored in these springs. He stumbles on Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, who is now owned by a strip club owner after her original Japanese owner decided to abandon her in Thailand rather than pay the dirigible fare to fly her back to Tokyo. The Thai government’s power is split between two warring factions, Trade and Environment, each of which plays a role in protecting the insular kingdom from outside threats and influences – like the importation of plants carrying new diseases – with each requiring its own sets of bribes and connections before shipments of outside goods can enter the country. When one of Trade’s enforcers, Jaidee, goes too far in punishing an importer who hasn’t paid sufficient bribes, it sets off a chain reaction that will eventually envelop Lake, Emiko, Jaidee’s forces, the heads of Trade, Environment, the army, and the queen’s regent in a political cataclysm that threatens to bring the country down.

The story is violent, especially to Emiko, often way beyond anything necessary for the plot to move forward. While the one major scene where she’s raped and forcibly sodomized leads to a revenge sequence that is integrated into the political storyline, there’s just more detail of her degradation than any reader should need – or than any author should want to offer. It engenders sympathy for her character, but she’s already such a pariah in this society that this is superfluous. Instead it seems like pandering to the worst elements of the audience.

Yet beyond Emiko, is there really a compelling character anywhere in the book? Lake is a blank page; his compassion for Emiko doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior, and if it’s just sexual attraction, that doesn’t exactly explain the compassion either. There’s no explanation for why he’s one person in his work mode and someone else entirely once he encounters Emiko and ends up saving her from officials chasing her in the street a day or two later. The closest thing to a fully-developed second character in the book is Kanya, Jaidee’s top lieutenant who ends up taking over his squad and finds the agency that Emiko lacks. Their paths don’t intersect – Kanya has a marked disdain for the windup who temporarily helps her hunt for Emiko – but they do represent contrasting sides of the issue of women establishing any sort of control over their lives in a male-dominated world.

Post-environmental catastrophe novels have been around a long time – A Canticle for Leibowitz, set after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, won the Hugo over forty years earlier – but Bacigalupi manages to fold a number of current problems or concerns into his setting that make it seem immediate where others in the subgenre have been remote. Global temperatures have risen with predictable consequences like higher sea levels. Food insecurity is a political destabilizer in this world, and food shortages are exacerbated by more tumultuous weather patterns and new plagues that evolved around monocultures foisted on the world by GMO food monopolies. Petroleum is gone, presumably exhausted, and methane use is tightly regulated. That means airplanes are gone and cars are luxury items. Air conditioning doesn’t seem to exist, which is particularly relevant to Emiko, who has been designed with smaller pores that mean she can’t sweat properly to cool her body. None of this seems that improbable or that far off, especially with our current government backpedaling on virtually all initiatives to protect the environment.

This novel winning major awards makes sense given the themes it tackles and the level of detail Bacigalupi has invested in his world, but I don’t think it’s that great of a novel in a literary sense due to the lack of compelling central characters. It’s thought-provoking, as many of the great sci-fi novels are, and there’s an immediacy here that stories of interstellar travel or time-shifting can’t bring. After I finished, however, I found the characters had completely vanished from my mind – the setting stuck, but none of the individuals did. That keeps it from the top echelon of sci-fi novels I’ve read in my run through the Hugo winners.

Unrelated, but “Bacigalupi” sounds like something the Hoobs would say.

Next up: I’ve run through three short books since finishing this, including Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novella The Big Time, which is free for the Kindle because it’s in the public domain but which I found boring, and am now reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

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.

Babel-17.

My second first-round projection (“mock”) for this year’s draft is up for Insiders.

Samuel Delany wrote his short novel Babel-17, a smart, profound philosophical work, when he was just 23 years old, an astounding achievement for a work that would be impressive for an author of any age. The prose is a bit abstruse and the story a little meandering, but this is a novel of ideas, or rather one very big idea, that the language we speak can ultimately shape the way we think, a concept known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s also the core idea behind the 2016 movie Arrival.)

According to The Linguist List, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that “an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.” The words and concepts of a language thus define not just what you say, but what you think and do. That simple version of the hypothesis, also called “linguistic relativism,” is generally accepted to be true, although there’s naturally disagreement on its extent, and there are stronger variations of the theorem (found in that link above) that are more controversial.

Delany builds an entire story around Sapir-Whorf, using an alien language called Babel-17 that humans and their allies have tried for years but failed to fully decipher, but that the other side in an ongoing, intergalactic war have weaponized to create turncoats within the allies’ forces. The protagonist, the poet and starship captain Rydra Wong, finds herself recruited by the Allies to crack what they suspect to be a code, only for her to discover that it’s an actual language that can re-program someone’s brain. This leads her on a series of missions into the war zone while coping with the likelihood that one of her own crew members is trying to sabotage the ship and potentially kill her.

For a novel that’s ostensibly set in a war, there’s very little fighting in Babel-17, which spends more time describing the consequences of war (like mass starvation) than the details of battle. Delany was enamored with his ideas about language, and managed to combine those with a compelling, three-dimensional protagonist – perhaps a too perfect one, as Rydra is brilliant, empathetic, and apparently beautiful, although the last point is only mentioned but never a factor in the story. The plot itself is a little muddled, and Delany’s prose struck me as Joyceian in spots, so for a book of under 200 pages it took me more time than I’d expect to get through it … which isn’t a criticism per se, more an observation given how quickly I read in general, and a reflection of how philosophical this novel is.

Delany does struggle to get the story to a reasonable, fulfilling conclusion, but I think that’s more feature than bug because the open question of the book, can language determine who we are and how we act, is not conducive to a plot deep enough for a novel. (Arrival got away with it, I think, because it was based on a short story, and a movie can work with a much shorter or thinner plot than a full-length novel can.) I never found myself wrapped up in the war plot. Delany gets more mileage out of the saboteur thread, although that conclusion wasn’t terribly satisfying on its own, only in the context of the broader question about language and thought. While I imagine linguists might object to his metaphor here, using Babel-17 as a brainwashing tool (and thus weaponizing Sapir-Whord), it takes a difficult and I think controversial topic in linguistics and puts it into a story in a way that an adept reader would understand the hypothesis and be left with plenty to chew on after finishing. That’s the great achievement of this book.

Jo Walton, whose book Among Others is one of my favorite novels of any genre, also weighed in on the wonders of Babel-17.

Next up: Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. It’s good to see Sully again.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. You can find links to order it here or get it at any local bookstore.

Kate Wilhelm won the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel in 1977 for her book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which Locus called – I kid you not – the best book about cloning, which I guess is a subgenre I just missed over the years. It’s also much more than just a book about cloning; like the best genre fiction, it uses its setting as a platform to tell a bigger story, in this case one about the importance of individuality in a society that might overvalue the collective good.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang starts with the fall of civilization; environmental degradation leads to worldwide food shortages and global pandemics. One family in the Shenandoah Valley starts planning for the apocalypse by building a research facility and eventually a hospital on their rural property and beginning a cloning program to combat declining fertility. Over the course of the novel, which jumps forward a few years at multiple points, the clones take over the kibbutz and start building their mini-society in a very different way than their ancestors would have, creating something akin to true communism as described by Marx in the end of Das Kapital. That attempt runs into massive practical and cultural problems, and Mark, the hero of the last half of the book, becomes the reluctant individual who tries to topple the status quo.

I don’t know what Wilhelm’s political views were, but I found it hard to see this as anything but a criticism of communism and its advocacy of a command (centrally planned) economy. The clones aren’t just similar; they experience a psychic bond to each other, so when one is injured, his/her clone siblings feel it, but so they’re also unable to function apart from their broods. Mark is raised outside of the commune for several years by his mother, Molly, who was part of a group that attempted to explore the ruins of nearby Washington, D.C., the members of which were all permanently altered by the traumatic experience of their separation. That leaves Mark the one true individual in the colony, not just able to function on his own, but able to think critically and creatively in ways that the clones cannot. At first, he acts out the way that bright kids do, playing pranks on the clones who can’t think their way out of trouble, but eventually realizes (or decides) that he’s the only person who can save both the colony and what remains of humanity.

And that’s really what this is – a savior story, set against the backdrop of a collective society that doesn’t just deny the individuality of its members, it breeds all individuality out of its members, selecting clones based on physical or mental characteristics needed to maintain the colony. (There’s an anti-eugenics theme in here as well, although it’s not as well-developed.) In a novel with few complete characters – that’s a feature of a cloning story, not a bug – Mark is the best, and comes across as the reluctant hero, beset by internal demons that resulted from mistreatment by the very society that he’s trying to save. I haven’t read the works of Ayn Rand beyond a few snippets, but this seems to mirror the anti-communist, individualist themes of her objectivist philosophy, just with better writing.

Next up: Kelly Link’s Pulitzer-nominated short story collection Get in Trouble.