Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 27, 2004

f&sf's greatest characters

Bravo television network has spent much of this week announcing their choices for TV’s 100 Greatest Characters. While the list has been interesting, I am not a big television watcher, so I have never seen the majority of their characters, nor even heard of some of them.

But science fiction and fantasy characters are a different matter entirely. I would love to see a ranking of f&sf’s 100 greatest characters (human, alien, or otherwise). Maybe I will suggest such a question to Locus for inclusion in their annual survey sometime. In the meantime, I will consider whether I want to invest sufficient time into compiling a personal list of my favorite all-time sfnal characters for a future Visions of Paradise article. Some characters who come to mind immediately include:

• Danny Boles, from Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings
• Robinette Broadhead, from Frederik Pohl’s Gateway
• R. Daneel, from Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel
• Corwin, from Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber
• Fritz the biped, from Damon Knight’s The Visitor At the Zoo/The Other Foot
• Isaac and Lin, from China Miéville’s Perdito Street Station
• Gully Foyle, from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination
• Kirth Gersen, from Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series
• Charley Gordon, from Kaniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon
• Cirocco Jones, from John Varley’s Gaea Trilogy
• Mike, from Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
• Sam, from Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light
• Daniel Selig, from Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside
• Severian, from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun
• Enoch Wallace, from Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station
• the group of pilgrims from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion
• the starship crew of Samuel R. Delany’s Nova

Keep in mind that these are purely personal favorites, so the list does not include such famous characters as Dune's Paul Atreides, E.E. Smith’s Lensmen, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and John Carter, or numerous other stars who have dotted the history of science fiction. These are only characters who have stuck in my mind.

I would be interested in hearing other readers’ favorite f&sf characters. If I receive sufficient responses, I’ll do a follow-up listing in a later blog.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman

St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman is a completely different type of story than A Canticle For Leibowitz. For one thing, it is a single cohesive novel rather than disjoint novellas. But that’s a trivial difference, as much a contemporary marketing consideration as anything else. After all, how many classic SF novels of the 40s and 50s were mosaic in form, only to have their 70s and 80s sequels be single novels that were twice as long as the original series? There are precious few mosaic novels written anymore.

The important difference between St. Leibowitz and Canticle is their overall approach. The original was a thought-provoking theological / philosophical tract on how humanity’s hubris causes it to fall from grace not once, but twice, in the same manner and for similar reasons. Its plot was minimal, intended to be no more than a framework on which Miller hung his speculations and musings.

St. Leibowitz, however, is a true novel in intent as well as in structure. It is still primarily character-driven, but where previously the characters were mostly representative of their roles in Miller’s speculation, in the sequel they are true people, not so much representatives of philosophical positions as they are representative of different aspects of humanity. And where previously Miller was only interested in developing them inasmuch as he needed them to develop his philosophical / theological speculations, in the sequel he spends 400+ pages developing both his characters and their world.

St. Leibowitz is a very political novel. There was definitely politics in Canticle, but that was unavoidable. Miller could not examine humanity’s hubris without delving somewhat into the quintessential representation of that hubris: the development of political views and political battles that probably shape humanity’s relationships as much as–if not more than–any other single human activity. But in St. Leibowitz the politics are not an unavoidable aspect of the novel, they are the novel. Miller’s main concerns are how humans develop organized religion and politics and, going a step deeper, how humans are influenced by their participation in both of them.

The plot of St. Leibowitz is a thirty-third century parallel of the mid-Renaissance struggles between the Italian city-states themselves and their joint struggles with the temporal authority of the Catholic Church. It takes place shortly after “Fiat Lux”, when the United States is subdivided into numerous political units, and the Church is headquartered in the city of Valana where it fled from New Rome several centuries ago because of fear of Emperor Hannegan whose forces surrounded the city supposedly to protect them against the barbarian hordes called Nomads (similar to the Roman Catholic Church’s flight to Avignon, France). Following that, there were anti-popes and schisms, and eventually reconciliation, but a fragile reconciliation with Eastern Church and Western Church still very suspicious of each other, as well as wary of the temporal rulers to whom specific bishops owe their allegiance.

At the time of St. Leibowitz, three popes have died in a period of several brief months, two of them under suspicious circumstances. The early portion of the book concerns the journey of Cardinal Brownpony and his delegation to Valana for the Papal Conclave to elect a new pope. But what a delegation it is! Brownpony himself, although a member of the College of Cardinals, is not only a layperson, but also the bastard son of a Nomad mother and a Christian father. He is accompanied by his secretary, a full-blooded Nomad nicknamed Nimmy who had been a novitiate in the abbey of St. Leibowitz before losing his vocation–although not his religious zeal–and being asked by Cardinal Brownpony to accompany him in lieu of being dismissed from the abbey; a Chinese bodyguard who was the former executioner to Emperor Hannegan before falling from grace and seeking sanctuary at the same abbey; another full-blooded barbarian who is descended from the last King of the Nomads and who is possibly in line to become the next king himself; and a mysterious old priest who seems to have closer ties to the pagan Nomads than to anybody else.

The election itself is reminiscent of Renaissance-era papal elections. The populace of Valana is so disgusted with schisms and endless conclaves that they barricade the electors in the papal hall without food or water (or even the removal of their waste products) until a pope is elected. Meanwhile, a local priest/hermit named Amen Specklebird has become a large cult figure to the Valanca citizens, so they begin advocating his candidacy as pope. Cardinal Brownpony is both a longtime advocate of Nomad rights and an outspoken opponent of the powerful Texark cardinal who as a crony of Emperor Hannegan is perhaps the most powerful prelate in the Church. So Brownpony not only champions the cause of the somewhat heretical Specklebird but manipulates the electors into selecting him as Pope Amen.

After the election, the plot becomes quite complex: Pope Amen appoints Brownpony as Advocate to the Nomads; he announces his intention of returning the papal seat to New Rome in the midst of the Texark Empire even though the Texark Church does not recognize Amen’s election; Brownpony’s secretary Nimmy–who is the narrative point of view of much of the novel–discovers that Brownpony is smuggling weapons to the Nomads unbeknownst to Pope Amen; Nimmy falls in love with a genny–a genetic mutant–which is illegal and immoral, yet he sires a child by her.

And what slowly develops is the realization by Nimmy that Brownpony is actually fomenting a rebellion of the Nomad tribes against the Texark Empire, a rebellion that becomes a crusade when Pope Amen Specklebird resigns, and subsequently dies, and is replaced by Pope Amen II–Cardinal Brownpony!

What follows is several hundred pages that more closely resemble a war novel than anything else. But what a colorful war novel it is! Pope Amen II arms and organizes the Nomad tribes until he believes they are ready for an invasion of the Texark Empire, an invasion that he declares a Crusade and leads by himself, along with a coterie of cardinals. Through the eyes of Nimmy we watch the crusade develop, see the interactions of Church leaders and Nomads, and watch Pope Amen II deteriorate before his very eyes as Nimmy questions the morality of all that is taking place. The novel builds to an exciting climax that, surprisingly and quite happily, is largely free of battle, although not without the burning of an entire city complete with a mass exodus of the population. The climax is quite unexpected, and much more thoughtful than the warlike buildup would lead you to expect, until you remember that Walter M. Miller, Jr. was its author and even in his declining years he was much more than a mere hack writer.

Because Nimmy is the point of view character, the novel maintains an undercurrent of theological and philosophical speculation throughout, although it is much more undercurrent than raison d’etre. At times it seems almost forgotten in politics and plotting, but it never vanishes totally, so that the novel’s climax is not so much surprise as fulfillment.

Overall, St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman was a very satisfying novel whose beginning and ending sections made up for a long, often slow-moving middle section. It is unfair to compare it to A Canticle For Leibowitz since they are totally different birds residing on entirely different philosophical plains. As a sequel to perhaps the most thought-provoking, philosophical SF novel ever written, it succeeds better than it can really expect to have succeeded. Taken entirely on its own merits, it is quite worthwhile and highly recommended.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Canticle for Leibowitz

In the decades immediately following the end of World War II American was gripped by fear of impending nuclear war, sparked by our government and the Soviet Union possessing nuclear arsenals capable of wiping all life off the face of the Earth. One result of this paranoia was the popularity of post-apocalyptic science fiction. That particular sub-genre was seemingly as popular as cyberpunk SF would be in the 1980s. It ran the gamut of paranoia from John Wyndham’s Rebirth (1955), whose emphasis was how so-called “normal” humans would fear and destroy mutated humans; George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) was a considerably more optimistic work about heartiness and survival; perhaps most pessimistic was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) which saw the ultimate fate of post-apocalyptic humanity as a group of bloodthirsty vampires.

Perhaps the highpoint of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre was a series of three novellas by Walter M. Miller, Jr published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1955), “And the Light is Risen” (1956), and “The Last Canticle” (1957). At the time Miller was one of the new stars in the science fiction firmament, having written a series of wondrous, poetic short stories and novelettes for the genre magazines, notably “Crucifixus Etiam”, “Conditionally Human”, and the Hugo-winning “Darfstellar”. His stories were superior examples of what true character-driven science fiction could be, tackling such concerns as what it meant to be human and what was the worth of a man.

But even the most devoted Miller fan could not have been prepared for the elegance of A Canticle For Leibowitz. When collected in book form a few years later, it won a richly-deserved Hugo Award as Best Novel and has maintained its reputation as one of SF’s true masterpieces ever since. Ironically, Miller abandoned writing after the success of that novel, finally returning thirty years later to spend the waning years of his life on a companion volume entitled St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, a novel which upon Miller’s death was completed by Terry Bisson.

It has been nearly thirty years since I’ve read A Canticle For Leibowitz, so it seemed logical to reread the novel in preparation for reading its highly-regarded companion. I was a bit apprehensive, since novels that thrilled me as a youngster don’t necessarily maintain their status when I reread them as an adult. I need not have worried, since before I finished reading the first novella I realized this is one novel that, if anything, offers even more pleasures now because of the increased sophistication in my taste in literature. Canticle is basically a character study, but it also contains philosophical depths and sense of wonder aplenty, providing equal parts thoughtfulness and excitement. And unusually for a story that fit firmly in a scientific genre usually geared towards agnosticism, if not downright atheism, the story was not merely about religion, but was deeply religious itself.

The first novella “ Canticle For Leibowitz”(called “Fiat Homo” in book form) was set 600 years after Armageddon, and told the story of a small order of Roman Catholic monks–no matter if the aftermath of the atomic war had caused the church’s home to relocate from Rome, Italy, to New Rome, somewhere in the former United States–devoted to their founder, the Blessed Leibowitz. Leibowitz was a nuclear scientist, one of the developers of the weapons of destruction, who embraced Catholicism after his wife died in the nuclear holocaust. The order’s seeming raison d’etre, besides recovering as much of the lost ancient knowledge as possible, is finding sufficient evidence to convince the pope that the Blessed Leibowitz is truly deserving of becoming Saint Leibowitz. While that might not mean much to non-Catholics, I spent 17 years of my education in Catholic schools and learned fully how important it is to some true believers that their icons achieve the lofty status of sainthood.

The monks’ quest is shown through the story of Brother Francis, a poorly-educated novice who, while undergoing his regular penance in the desert, encounters a strange wanderer who leads him to an underground fallout shelter containing important relics of Blessed Leibowitz himself. No matter that none of the monks understand the relics–although the reader quickly recognizes them as blueprints of some technological facility–or that the wanderer bears a suspicious likeness to the centuries’ deceased Leibowitz himself.

What follows is a rich multi-layered tale: poor Brother Francis’ ill treatment by the order’s abbot who suspects him of fabricating a ludicrous tale that is apt to discredit the entire Leibowitz sainthood movement more than forward it; Francis’ rising reputation among his fellow monks who are convinced he was chosen by God himself and that the wanderer was indeed Leibowitz sent down from heaven; The arrival at the abbey of two powerful delegates from New Rome, one sent to the abbey to take Francis' evidence, the other sent there to discredit it; Francis' journey to New Rome where he meets the pope himself–one of the best scenes in the entire novel as Miller effortlessly combines politics with a true believer’s view of how a well-meaning pope can maintain dignity amidst a setting of near-poverty.

The novella’s ending is both traumatic and appropriate, leaving no surprise that it was selected as the 2nd best novella ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America for their Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1973.

Where the first novella was set in the depths of the Dark Ages, the second novella “Let There Be Light” (“Fiat Lux” in book form) is the story of the coming of the Renaissance. In the minds of many modern people the Renaissance was a glorious time, the era when European civilization shed its feudal skin and experienced the rebirth of learning and culture. It was the age of Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the apex of the city-states when the middle classes asserted their independence from lords and vassals.

That may be the popular view of the Renaissance, but in truth it was an era as wrought with strife as any era in history, a time when Church struggled for supremacy with the State, when numerous petty rulers waged wars to extend their hegemony, when the value of life was no higher than it had been during the Dark Ages. This is the Renaissance that Walter M. Miller describes. The novella takes place in the same abbey as “A Canticle For Leibowitz” did, but now that abbey is hosting a renowned scholar who is studying their ages’ old artifacts for signs of the learning buried within them. We see the struggle between tradition and advancement in the abbey itself, but more importantly we see deadly struggles all around the abbey. Rulers are making pacts and warfare with equal aplumb while challenging the power of New Rome. While the monks welcome the renewed interest in the learning they have protected so jealously for so many centuries, they fear the materialism that seems to be accompanying the rebirth of knowledge, and how scholarship seems to have bedded itself with materialism rather than with Holy Mother Church.

Where “A Canticle For Leibowitz” was poetic and religious, “Let There Be Light” is darker and more philosophical. Where most similar novellas would have sludged their way to a resolution of the warring forces, Miller is more concerned with making his readers think about what is happening than explaining it for them. Is the rebirth of scholarship so worthwhile to civilization that humanity should accept the support of petty dictators rather than oppose them in favor of the more moralistic Church? Is there a natural antipathy between Church and State, or can they support each other with compromise and selflessness?

The concluding novella “The Last Canticle” (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”) leaps forward again to an era akin to modern times, an era of high technology, spacecraft, and splitting the atom. Except this is civilization’s second time around, so does it not seem likely humanity would have finally learned their lesson from the first atomic war? Not according to Miller who, it seems, is incredibly cynical about the nature of humanity. For in this novella the world is on the verge of worldwide war again. Two nuclear bombs have already been dropped, and the foreign ministers of the world’s leading powers are meeting, desperately trying to stave off total annihilation.

As in the first two novellas, the story is centered around the abbey of St. Leibowitz. One subplot is the emotional trauma of a young monk selected as the leader of a group of religious being sent secretly on an interstellar ship whose mission is to save Holy Mother Church in case of total annihilation on Earth. The major focus is the philosophical battle between the abbot and a medical official treating victims of radiation, many of whom are experiencing immense suffering and whose life expectancy can be measured in days, or even hours. While the abbot insists in prolonging life as long as possible while offering one’s suffering to God, the official wants to counsel the dying to seek out government suicide centers.

This third novella reeks of despair. The coming war is inevitable, as is the second demise of human civilization. Yet one cannot help but wonder: how can the world choose death after having escaped centuries of near-death? Are humans so selfish and arrogant that they would relegate the entire world population to destruction yet again? The simple, optimistic answer would be “No! Humanity would learn from its mistakes”, but hasn’t the history of modern times proven that is definitely not the case? Miller certainly makes you understand why holocaust follows holocaust in these supposed enlightened times.

The Last Canticle” features one of the most striking characters in all of science fiction, Mrs. Grales, the two-headed tomato lady. She figures prominently in the novella’s climactic scene about which I will say nothing for the sake of those readers who have not read it yet. Suffice it to say the scene will stay with you for a long, long time.

Next time I will discuss the sequel St Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

American Gods

The first thing you must understand about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods before reading it is that it was a bestseller for a definite reason: it was written in bestseller-style, having all the rock n’ roll moves of a bestseller. Shadow is an ex-con with a heart of gold who made a mistake which was a combination of bad judgment and bad temper but which cost him both three years in jail as well as his marriage. The day he was released from prison he learned of the death of two people: the owner of the health club where he had worked previously and where he was slated to work again, and his wife. Oh, yeah, it seems they died together in a car crash while she was giving the driver a blowjob which caused him to lose control of the car and crash it.

Shadow is flying home from prison when he encounters a strange old man named Wednesday who offers him a job as a glorified errand boy. Turns out Wednesday is the modern incarnation of Odin, chief Norse god, who is trapped in America because he was brought there in the minds of emigrés over the centuries. But as less and less people believe in him–along with all the other ancient gods from Greek to Roman to Hindu to Chinese–they are slowly dying, being replaced by modern gods such as Media and some nerdish computer kid.

Immediately I was reminded of two things I’d read years ago. A myth entitled “Great Pan is Dead” bemoaning his death, and that of all his Olympian cohorts, at the hands of Christianity which had replaced them with a newer God. And an article by Poul Anderson in Galaxy in the 1960s called “Poulfinch’s Mythology” in which he created a modern pantheon to replace the former gods who no longer existed through disbelief.

Wednesday and his fellow gods face another threat as well. It seems the modern gods are not content to replace the olden gods gradually but, as typical of modern life, they are impatient to replace them immediately. So Wednesday was gathering his forces for a showdown between old and new gods.

American Gods was interesting reading, as Shadow accompanied Wednesday on his travels trying to gather all the former gods together for a final cataclysmic battle for survival against the new gods. Somehow Shadow becomes a target of the new gods as they try desperately to eliminate him for reasons not clear in the first half of the book.

There are lots of things to like about American Gods. Shadow’s character is well-developed, both emotionally and with the type of quirks indicative of fully-developed people. And the book exudes mystery, many unanswered questions that the reader mulls as Shadow himself does. As the book reaches its climax, all the mysteries are eventually answered, as well as a few which were not even apparent earlier. Items which had seemed like fascinating red herrings early in the book come to be important clues to the overriding mystery at the end. It makes for a more satisfying denouement than I expected, one which had me chuckling and appreciating Gaiman’s cleverness in putting it all together.

It’s not a perfect novel. Some of the scenes during Wednesday and Shadow’s travels are clever but unessential. I never did totally understand Shadow’s dead wife Laura, how she came to be such an important factor in the novel’s climax while dead. But when you’re dealing intricately with gods and beliefs, it is easy to accept some not-quite-logic so long as it is not too frequent (which it is not) nor too overwhelming to the novel itself (also not).

American Gods is enjoyable reading, with enough cleverness at the end to raise it slightly above the level of a typical bestseller, and with enough good qualities for me to seek out Gaiman’s next book, or perhaps one of his previous books which I have not read yet.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicom is a big, lumbering shaggy dog of a novel. It will definitely appeal to some readers, but not all.

The novel follows two main storylines. During World War II, Lawrence Waterhouse is a mathematician engaged in deciphering German and Japanese codes for the military. In the 1990s, his grandson Randy Waterhouse is working to establish a high-tech business in the Phillippines. Both these stories are explored in great length–after all, the novel is 910 pages–seemingly in isolation for the first half of the book, although in the second half they increasingly come together.

Along the way we encounter a large cast of mostly fascinating characters. Two of Lawrence’s Princeton classmates are also engaged in cryptography, Alan Turing with the British and Rudy von Hacklheber working for the Nazis. Three World War II soldiers are important: U.S. marine Bobby Shaftoe, Japanese soldier Goto Dengba, and U-2 commander Bischoff. In the 1990s, Randy’s partner Avi is the business end of the partnership while Randy is the mathematician. Doug Shaftoe–son of Bobby–and his daughter Amy are salvage experts working for Randy and Avi.

The plot is incredibly complicated, and for the first half of the book the two storylines are parallel, but unconnected. On page 280 I encountered one character’s quote “The only hard part, as usual, is understanding what the fuck is going on.” I suspect that was an inside joke on Stephenson’s part, since at that point I pretty much felt the same way.

What keeps the book’s first half interesting is Stephenson’s writing. It is rich and evocative, filled with local color so you really feel you are reading it in Manila or Brisbane or England. It is also filled with long, winding tangents involving everything from historical facts to personal histories. In fact, the entire first half seemed little more than an excuse for the individual scenes and tangents.

It also had one of the great opening scenes of any novel I have read in recent years.

All of which gradually changes in the second half as the reader discovers a connection between Randy’s fledgling business and Lawrence’s cryptography. A sunken U-2 boat off the coast of the Phillippines becomes an important factor in the plot, as does Lawrence’s hidden papers. Enoch Root, a fallen-away priest during World War II, shows up in the 1990s, as does Goto Dengba. And in the last few hundred pages, all the fascinating tangents slowly fade away as the plotlines themselves shove front and center.

But in order to get that far, you have to be patient, and it helps if you enjoy long-winded writing–which I do–where the author has no interest in linear development, but rather spiraling around the plot, visiting every possible nook and cranny that might or might not have any relevance to what is actually happening while slowly weaving in on the crux of the entire matter.

Because the book is so big and sprawling, it has some obvious flaws. Lawrence Waterhouse totally disappears from the book for several hundred pages near the end, while Goto Dengba becomes the main focus of the World War II sections. While his activities are very important to the 1990s segment, his portion with General MacArthur was much less interesting than Waterhouse’s had been.

The novel has a lot of mathematics in its World War II portions, and a lot of tech talk in its 1990s portions. Personally, I enjoyed the former but was bored by the latter, although other readers might feel precisely the opposite, or even dislike both portions. Fortunately, all that talk might as well have been part of Stephenson’s tangents, since none of it was vital to understanding the novel, although they did contribute to the enjoyment of it.

Not all of the tangents were equally-enjoyable. One portion about Captain Crunch cereal bored me, and another about Randy’s wisdom teeth struck me as ludicrous. But there were so many tangents, most of them interesting, that a few weak ones scattered through 900 pages was not fatal.

Nor is Stephenson a master of characterization. Most of the characters are drawn broadly without subtleties, but that is almost expected in what is not so much a book about people as it is about the activities those people are engaged in. So when two Nazis defect to the Allied side, their motivations do not bear much analysis, because there is not much emotional foundation to their defection.

Almost obvious without saying, any novel this long and shaggy, with a plot so winding and complex, does not bear close scrutiny. At times it stretched disbelief considerably, and in places there were blatant incongruities (the planted drugs and the leprosy both come to mind, for those of you who have already read the book).

This is not a great or classic novel in any sense. As I said earlier, it’s a big shaggy dog, fun to read for Stephenson’s writing and tangents most of the way through, and satisfying in how he manages to tie it all together mostly successfully. Reading it did not make me wish it had won a Hugo Award, but it did make me want to buy Stephenson’s 2700 page Baroque Cycle, because I anticipate it will be as much fun as this novel was.