Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land

I am getting around to this book review a little late. This is actually the book that kicked off my summer of sci-fi. I grabbed this book from the library bookshelves on a whim because the title came from Moses in the Book of Exodus.

The book follows Valintine Michael Smith, a human alien who was born and raised on Mars and travels to Earth. To survive in the harsh Martian environment, Smith learns the mind and body control techniques of the locals. He can also control the material being of others through levitation, psychic control and the ability to un-make anything or anyone who is hostile. A person who is unmade is not completely destroyed; his soul is just recycled into a new body, kind of like reincarnation on the journey to nirvana. He builds a religion which includes orgies, ritual cannibalism and water rituals. This religion challenges social mores, traditional marriage, traditional family structures and churches. Curiously, an actual religion was formed based upon the invented religion of the book.

I did get tired by the ravenous sex the characters seem to have. I understand that the book was written at a different time when sex was repressed. Strike that, it still seems silly and boring. Sex is everywhere, in magazines and tv shows. And it is so cheap and lame. I am bored by publicized sex.

I enjoyed this book for most of the way through but once the Church of All Worlds was built, I was put of by the hedonism it promoted.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


This book has set the bar high. I admit it took me a while to adjust to the feudal politics at work but I got over the prejudice fast. The story is rich and deep; I am not sure where to begin. I know, I know. Dune is already famous for being a great and that it is very well known, but I only just read it and did not know what to expect. I must give credit to the MMORPG Kingdom of Loathing for encouraging me to read Dune.

Dune takes place in our universe in the very distant future, some 21,000 years from now, when the human population is spread throughout the universe - an impressively conservative amount of time for our technology to facilitate such travel. Curiously, computers have been outlawed, requiring the training of humans to do complex and speedy computations in their place. The political-economic structure of the worlds are petty feudal systems which are declining in power and stability.

The religious overtones are a curious invention. Dominated by women but yearned for a single man to be the messiah. These women, the Bene Gesserit, so called witches exist selflessly for breeding and to support their husbands but they are the true, though indirect, power behind their husbands and they possess the ability to control by mere speech.

Both sides are extremely sexist however there are two couples, Leto/Jessica and Paul/Chani, which seem to bridge the gaps. But Paul is something else all over again. Within Paul, the female mind within the male body, lies all the power of the universe. It is this duality that gives him all his strength.

The possibility of free will is a strange conflict. Paul at times can see into his future but his choices and their consequences lay a veil over the future. Is it possible that Paul can see only the near-future, what is inevitable from the actions that have already been taken. For example, if I throw a rock over a cliff, it is inevitable that the rock should hit the ground. But I cannot possibly know what will happen to that rock in a hundred years.

I find it curious that the leaders of the religion are called Bene Gesserit, which means something like "he/she does good" which is ironic since I am not convinced that this order only does good or is even actually moving toward good. I will need to read more of the Dune series to decide that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Earth Abides

This was my first science-fiction novel/novella/short. I suppose this is not entirely true but it is the first one that ever affected me.

It is one of the early Apocalypse stories that became so popular during the cold war and the Bush W. administration. The story is told by Ish who observes the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. The catalyst is an unknown, air-born disease that kills off at least 99.99% of humanity sparing few with natural immunity. The world that ends is only the civilized world and the world that is rebuilt is only the world of mankind.

The title refers to the apathy of the planet upon which this human drama is played. Ish tends to watch the world instead of interacting and shaping. He notes that the few species to take notice of man's demise were domesticated in one sense or another: dogs, cats, rats, cows, etc. I suspect he is wrong about his evaluation of the survival of dogs, cats and horses. These animals are not tamed, even if they are domesticated. We like to pretend that they are and if we can appease dogs and cats and break horses, they will limply go along. But I suspect that a wild dog has a decent chance. And aren't all horses wild in each new generation?

The easy criticism of the book is Ish's own failure to respond. He gripes a great deal about inaction, such as failing to teach the children to read, but he never seems interested in acting. Why didn't he begin to read to his children in their infancy? It seems that in his absurd hopes for a chosen, golden child he readily forsook all of human knowledge.

Ish is, however, not what stays in my mind year after year. Instead, it is Stewart's imagine decay of civilization, for good and ill. The surviving "tribe" shares more work and has a communal ethic that eases the burdens of all. Racism is a luxury of a large society that the tiny tribe can no longer support. Yes, I am using "luxury" perversely. But sexism thrives, possibly out of necessity since the women are expected to bear any number of children to repopulate the world. Monogamy seems to establish itself in the second generation although there are two female survivors who share a husband. Superstition also survives.

Stewart also touches on a theory in studies of early human history. A population must be large enough before it can support and maintain progress. In Ish's doomed son lies hope that future generations will be able to access the treasury of knowledge in the libraries. When he dies, this hope is extinguished. Presumably, everyone else is too busy foraging and hunting. Though this is truly Ish's lame failure, it echoes a truth from across the ages. You cannot make advances in smelting it you are busy surviving.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Day of the Triffids

Day of the Triffids is so classic it is almost cliche. The book is predicated on cold war paranoia and middle-class fears. Wyndham makes allusions to communism in the single-minded Triffids who act with a single intent, destruction and consumption of humans, with callous disregard for individuals of its own species.

Some foreign country designs a new type of plant, the triffid, as a weapon of economic warfare. However, the plant is spread when an attempt to steal a box of seeds goes wrong, allowing the almost weightless seeds to spread all over the world. The new plant has some disturbing behaviours. A mature plant is capable of stinging and blinding a human; the plant is carnivorous; the plants are capable of moving, especially over dirt but they can cross pavement for short distances if necessary; the plants are intelligent and probably have a means of communicating to each other through vibration.

A possibly-unrelated meteor shower blinds any human who gazes at it, rendering humanity helpless. The Triffids take the opportunity to break free of their prison-farms and attack the newly blind. Attempts to gather, protect and repopulate humanity quickly go awry. Our protagonist carves out a small niche in a farm, batteling the Triffids and attempting to creat self-sufficiency. Eventually, they face the option of joining a more survivors on the Isle of Wight where the Triffids have been prevented from taking root literally or giving in to a fascist military organization.

If I seem dismissive about the plot, please forgive me. It was an original that has been used, manipulated, borrowed and stolen so it is as familiar as peanut butter. The story takes place in the middle of events, the day after the meteor shower, while the protagonist is healing from a Triffid sting. It similarly ends in a transition as the farm community strikes out to cast their lot on the island. Struggle and doubt are felt the entire plot length; they are never resolved. It's a lot like life - blind people groping about to survive, trusting those who claim to see, petty fighting, constant threat, uncertaintity, etc.

There are four failed attempts to (re)establish society: 1-A society repopulated by seeing men procreating with numerous, mostly blind-from-birth women. This experiment is aborted before it is even tested. It is met with some resistance because it goes against current mores and because it fails to provide for those who are newly blind.
2-A second attempt forces the seeing to be shackled into slavery to save the blind by scavenging for food. The seeing person is handcuffed to one or two blind persons so he can not simply escape. Their lives are spend searching for increasingly depleted food sources. Eventually, a strange disease, possibly food poisoning, begins to work its way through the blind, and possibly other people who can see.
3-A third society is created by one of the dissidants in the first group. She creates an impractical and overly idealist religious colony based upon Christian morals, or at least her interpretation of them. While this society temporarily functions, it fails to provide adequately for the future and the threat of Triffids.
4-The final attempt is the small farm tribal self-sustaining farm that faces increasing threat from the Triffids. This little society tries to fence out the world and Triffids but cannot continue to defend itself from either.

The fifth society is not reached. It is created by the original leader of the first movement but with some practical modifications.

Friday, July 10, 2009

She Blinded Me with Sci-Fi primer

Science-Fiction is the realm of "possible". Whatever we dream can be, even our nightmares. In this magic genre fiction becomes reality but so too does reality become fiction. Gravity, time's linear movement, property, sex, all of this and more becomes optional and open for distortion. And when life imitates art we can invent cellphones, e-readers, webcams, and robots.

I am something of a Janie-come-lately to the science fiction world. Growing up, I had a healthy exposure to Star Trek (original and The Next Generation) and, aside from my crush on Data, it did not really seep into my life. It was not until middle-school when I found Earth Abides on my mother's bookshelf that I began to read any science fiction. I slowly gained momentum, not considering science-fiction any more than any other kind of fiction, until this summer.

I have been a little fed up with the assumed and accepted reality. I like to remember that I am an animal, part of the enormous ecosystem we call Earth. I tend to wonder how a given situation would translate into an uncivilized human mind. No, I am not making archaic and blatantly racist romantic stories about the "savage". I like to strip away our fake environments, our learned social responses, and remember that I am only a human. I am a naked, utterly defenseless animal in an "untamed" and "undeveloped" natural world. It allows me to let go of the stress that builds up when worrying about things like a good credit score, a collapsing economy, how much I pay for health insurance, how much I pay for my graduate studies, etc. I suppose, in many ways, it rids me of the burden of money.

So while I am on school break, I plan to take a break for the pettiness of graduate school studies and engage in some healthy fantasy and escape this reality for a little while. I cannot afford a vacation or even a soma holiday so escapism is here as a cheap substitute.