Visions of Paradise

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It would be almost unfair for me to review Jack McDevitt’s Seeker without expressing how predisposed I was to enjoy this book. I absolutely love historical novels, especially those set in the far-future whose history they explore is actually our future rather than our past, Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings and Alastair Reynolds’ Conjoiner-Inhibitor series being examples. I also enjoy historical mysteries, by which I do not mean crime mysteries set in historical times (such as Brother Cadfael and all his imitators in Egypt/Rome/the Middle Ages, etc.), but stories of historians or anthropologists or archaeologists trying to uncover the secrets behind some historical mystery/legend/whatever. The prototype of this would be Josephine Tey’s classic Daughter of Time and, well, the first two series in Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series, A Talent for War and Polaris.

In my review of Polaris (VoP #104), I said...

This combination of future and history is one of the reasons I fell in love with science fiction, and why authors such as Silverberg and McDevitt are among my personal favorite writers. anything less than a positive review of this novel would be the equivalent of a scathing review. But that’s not going to happen. Seeker is even better than Polaris. It begins simply when a client brings an antique cup to antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath (the latter is the narrator of all the books in the series). They discover it was from the famous missing spaceship Seeker which carried hundreds of rich malcontents unhappy with Earth’s restrictive government to a distant colony which “even God couldn’t find.” And for nine thousand years, nobody has found it, so that common perception is the colony is a legend which does not actually exist.

Seeker begins with Benedict and Chase’s attempts to find the spaceship and, when they do (which is not a spoiler since it occurs fairly early in the book), their subsequent attempts to find the legendary colony of Margolia. One of the book’s highlights, perhaps the highlight, was Chase’s visit to the homeworld of the Mutes, the only alien race so far discovered by humans. McDevitt gives a very thought-provoking look at how difficult it is to co-exist with being so different from oneself. Consider the following paragraph:

Another aspect of spending time with the Mutes is that they don’t talk. You’re in a room with more than twenty people, and they’re all sitting quietly looking at one another. And nobody is saying anything.

Or the following sequence when Chase communicates with a Mute through passing a notebook back and forth (Frank is her name for the Mute, not his personal designation for himself):

I asked Frank whether it wasn’t distracting to be constantly experiencing a flow of thought and emotions from others.

“I can’t imagine life without it,” he explained. “I’d be cut off.” His red eyes focused on me. “Don’t you feel isolated? Alone?”

And later...

“We can’t hide from what we think,” Frank told me on the second day. “Or what we feel. And we know that. My understanding is that humans aren’t always honest, even with themselves. I don’t understand how that could be, but it’s a fascinating concept.

The novel actually contains a series of mysteries, with the discovery of Seeker leading to the search for Margolia which leads to another mystery which I should not reveal. There is a minimal amount of skullduggery as a group opposed to what they consider robbing the past tries to stop Benedict and Chase’s efforts. That was probably unnecessary to the book, but I guess mystery writers cannot resist a bit of the thriller. Alastair Reynolds fell prey to the same weakness in his series, and they were generally the weakest parts of his books as well.

The wonder of exploration and discovery permeateSeeker, as does future history. And its ending is one of those “stand up and cheer” moments which would play so well if this were a movie (which I hope it never becomes, since a filmmaker is sure to play up the skullduggery at the expense of the more thoughtful mysteries). It has almost everything I enjoy in far-future science fiction with the exception of outstanding characterization. Considering the book’s numerous other strengths, I really did not miss that aspect at all. I will end this review by editing a bit the same statement with which I ended my review of Polaris:

I already have 6 Jack McDevitt books in my collection, and enjoyed them all because of their combination of storytelling and history. I think the time has come to complete my McDevitt collection.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Future history primer

I have been preaching a lot recently about the wonders of future history as a sub-genre of science fiction. This includes space opera (the more recent definition of it as any sf set in the wilds of outer space), planetary romances, and other far-future sf.

So it seems only fitting that I should offer this Primer of Future History SF as examples of how wondrous and exciting far-future sf can be. Most of these far-future novels have been written since 1960 since those are the years I have been an active reader of sf. The list is in roughly chronological order.

City / Clifford D. Simak
The Stars My Destination / Alfred Bester
The Man Who Counts / Poul Anderson
The Star King / Jack Vance
Lord of Light / Roger Zelazny
Nightwings / Robert Silverberg
Nova / Samuel R. Delany
The Left Hand of Darkness / Ursula K Le Guin
Ringworld / Larry Niven
Gaea trilogy / John Varley
Gateway series / Frederik Pohl
The Darkover series / Marion Zimmer Bradley
Brothers of Earth / C.J. Cherryh
Galactic Center series / Gregory Benford
Dying of the Light / George R.R. Martin
Speaker for the Dead / Orson Scott Card
Grass / Sherri S. Tepper
The Hyperion cantos / Dan Simmons
Alex Benedict series / Jack McDevitt
Galactic North trilogy / Alastair Reynolds

Feel free to add any suggestions to the above list. It is certainly not intended to be definitive.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Empire Star

There are elements of space opera which definitely appeal to me: it is the most expansive type of science fiction, ranging across solar systems and even galaxies, involving colorful future humans and aliens, as well as exotic worlds and cultures, both human and alien. At its best space opera provides more sense of wonder than any other forms of sf; at its worst it is pre-occupied with space wars and battle scenes, which do not particularly appeal to me. But when the wars remain in the background, or are nonexistent in the story, space opera can be truly exhilarating.

This past summer I read Alastair Reynold’s Galactic North trilogy which was truly wonderful. Its only weakness was being a bit light on characterization, but how many writers truly handle both ends of the sf spectrum equally well? The trilogy convinced me to seek out more space opera, so my Recommended Reading list currently includes the following:

> Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebus, the first of his Culture novels;

> The New Space Opera, co-edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. According to Strahan’s blog Notes From Coode Street, its list of contributors includes Robert Reed, Peter Hamilton, Ken Macleod, Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford, Nancy Kress, Walter Jon Williams, and Dan Simmons, including “major new short novels” by Reynolds, Silverberg, and Simmon;

> Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois has six novellas by an equally-exciting cast of authors: Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, Peter F. Hamilton, Ian McDonald, Robert Reed, and Alastair Reynolds;

> Alastair Reynolds’ new collections Zima Blue and Galactic North.

Without waiting for those books, I recently bought David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer’s The Space Opera Renaissance, their latest huge overview of the science fiction field (including The Ascent of Wonder, The Science Fiction Century and The World Treasury of Science Fiction, among others). This latest thousand page book begins with dinosaurs such as Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, but quickly moves into the 60s with Cordwainer Smith and Samuel Delany and progresses from there.

The first story I read was Iain Banks’ “A Gift From the Culture,” since I have read so many positive comments about his space opera being both literary and thought-provoking in addition to being expansive and wondrous (sounds like everything I would like, doesn’t it?). This was a strong story without any space battle in its pages. Besides being exceptionally well-written, its main character was both well-defined and sympathetic. The basic situation involved his being mired in such deep gambling debts that he is offered a dire choice: destroy an arriving spacecraft containing an important general and ambassador from the Culture or serious damage will be done both to the protagonist and to his lover.

The story’s ending was a bit predictable, and seemed somewhat of a literary trick of following the logical conclusion rather than doing something unexpected, but the story’s merits overall affirmed my decision to dip into Banks’ Culture novels sometime soon.

The next story I read was written by one of my very favorite authors during the 60s and 70s, Samuel R. Delany. “Empire Star” was one of his earliest stories, a short novel originally published as half of an Ace paperback. It is the tale of Comet Jo, an uneducated boy on a simple, low-tech world, who finds an intelligent jewel which he must deliver along with an important message to Empire Star, which is the heart of the galactic empire. However, Jo has no idea what the message is or to whom he must deliver it to.

This story features all the hallmarks of early Delany: it is basically a quest novel combined with the coming of age of its young protagonist. Reading it, and most early Delany, I cannot help wondering what the author himself was seeking during the years he was repeating this motif in his novels. As Jo travels to Empire Star, he begins growing intellectually, from “simplex” at the story’s outset to “multiplex” as he begins questioning people and examining situations from various viewpoints. Not surprisingly, as Jo becomes multiplex, so does the story. What began as a straightforward quest soon develops overlapping strands which weave together like a moëbius strip. Unlike “A Gift From the Culture,” the story’s ending is both surprising and satisfying.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the story were the Lll, a race who serve as slaves in the empire. To protect them, the Lll are altered so that anybody who enters their presence feels an overwhelming sadness. One of the strongest scenes in “Empire Star” is when Jo and another “shuttle bum” play music for 7 Lll slaves for an hour to entertain them while they are being transported to a distant planet. Jo basically cries from sadness through the entire concert, at the end leaving totally emotionally drained from the experience.

Even more traumatic is owning Lll slaves, since the sadness is both more powerful and increases geometrically the more slaves one owns. Delany shows the effect this has on San Severina, one of the story’s main characters who owns the 7 Lll slaves.

Reading “Empire Star,” I was impressed both by the fact that such a multi-faceted story was written by a twenty-year old youth, and also at how it more resembled a late 90s “New Space Opera” than the simplex stuff being published in the early 60s. It reinforced my long-held belief that Delany was one of the most talented writers science fiction has ever known. What a shame it is that his fiction voice has been mostly silent the past 20 years, after he reinvented sword & sorcery with his Neveryóna series in much the same way “Empire Star” and its successors Babel-17 and Nova reinvented space opera.

This review will be continued as I read more of The Space Opera Renaissance.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The High Crusade

Last weekend we went to Orlando, Florida to visit our son who is interning at Disney World. I wanted some lighter reading for the plane flight to, so I selected Poul Anderson’s classic novel The High Crusade, which I have not read in thirty+ years. The opening scene could have been straight out of Star Trek (although the novel preceded the tv series by about 6 years):

A spacecraft lands on a world inhabited by intelligent beings living in a feudal society. As the ship descends, thousands of natives gather around the ship. A door in the side of the ship opens, and a landing crew descends the ramp, each member holding a ray-gun in their hand.

With their superior technology and firepower, the spacemen feel absolutely no threat from the natives, so much so that one of them casually shoots a threatening native. Immediately the thousands of natives, who are actually members of a well-trained army, let fly a volley of thousands of arrows which immediately riddle and kill each member of the landing party.

The native army quickly enter the ship through the ramp and destroy the entire crew of the ship.

The planet is Earth, and the native army is led by Sir Roger de Tourneville who was bringing them into battle. Instead the ship leads them to the intergalactic empire of the Wersgorix where they prove that a highly-advanced technology is not necessarily safe against the warriors of a considerably less-advanced culture, a fact which has been illustrated in countries such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq over the past half-century, all wars which occurred after The High Crusade was written. One of Anderson’s tenets here is that simpler does not necessarily mean stupid.

Much of the book is tongue-in-cheek, and the reader certainly needs to suspend his or her disbelief at how easily the feudal warriors succeed in many instances. But the book is never boring, and never so outrageous as to be frustrating. It was very good light reading.