Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Choice of Gods

I discovered science fiction on Christmas Day, 1962, when I found the January, 1963 issue of Worlds of IF in my stocking. I immediately fell in love with the issue, and the story which most appealed to me was Clifford D. Simak’s “The Shipshape Miracle.” The next day I hurried to the local candy store and bought the February, 1963, issue of Galaxy which also featured a Simak story, “Day of Truce.” By then I was hooked, and Simak became my favorite sf writer almost immediately, especially when two months later Galaxy began the serialization of his novel Here Gather The Stars (which became the Hugo-winning Way Station in book form).

Since then I have read almost every Simak book with a few exceptions, and I have loved nearly all of them, even the simpler quest novels he wrote later in his career. But wrapped around those lighter novels was a trilogy of philosophical books which examined humanity’s need for religion and a higher entity guiding our existence: A Heritage of Stars, Project Pope and A Choice of Gods.

It has been several decades since I first read A Choice of Gods, so I approached it tentatively, since sometimes novels which shine in one’s memory do not retain that aura upon rereading. Its setting is a far-future Earth which has been mostly depopulated for two reasons: the vast majority of its eight million inhabitants were mysteriously removed several thousand years previously, and most of those who remained developed the ability to teleport elsewhere, which they did. Left behind are one family which chose not to leave with the others, a tribe of Native Americans who have returned to their traditional ways, and all the robots which had been built to serve humans and now seem to be trying to fill in the gap left by their absence. Virtually all remnants of Earth’s vast technology has been lost, and the remaining residents of Earth live a simple, rustic existence, the type which Simak obviously loved and portrayed in much of his fiction.

Much of the book consists of long discussions between its main characters:
▸ Jason, the patriarch of the remaining family;
▸ Horace Red Cloud, the chief of the Native American tribe;
▸ Hezekiah, a robot who has undertaken the role of head of an ancient Christian monastery and who is obsessed with his quest for a deity;
▸ Evening Star, a Native American girl whose desire for reading leads her to stay with Jason’s family and read Jason’s vast collection of books.

The interaction between these people are the basis of the book, but the plot takes a dramatic turn when Jason’s brother John returns from the heart of the galaxy. He tells Jason about an entity he sensed there which he calls the Principle which does not seem to be a deity, but rather something which is observing the galaxy and perhaps experimenting on its various life forms, since John believes the Principle might be responsible for removing most of Earth’s population.

In addition, John encountered the descendants of Earth’s population who have been living on three adjacent worlds where they have continued their technology and even advanced it to the point where they have located Earth and are sending a survey ship to it, presumably for the purpose of deciding whether the billions of humans wish to return home.

Readers who enjoy a slow-paced novel which mostly consists of conversations and speculation will enjoy A Choice of Gods as much as I did. I recommend it highly.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Inventory Season

Readers of this blog probably know that I enjoy making lists, everything from Best of the Year lists to Future History Series to Recommended Reading/Listening. This summer I spent about ten hours inventorying my collections of books and music. I do not have huge amounts of either books or music, partly because (a) I have culled my book collection of hundreds of books I did not enjoy and were only taking up space on my shelves; and (b) I gave all my record albums to charity last summer, so that my music collection now consists of the remaining tapes and cds.

I have 993 tapes and cds left, over 950 of which are rock and roll in its various sub-genres. Progressive rock is my most dominant type of rock music, with 219 albums. The most prominent artists in my collection are:

The Kinks / Ray Davies: 41
Bob Dylan: 26
Richard Thompson: 22
Pink Floyd: 21
Yes: 21
Van Morrison: 20
The Beatles: 18
Moody Blues: 18
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: 18
Neil Young : 18
Creedence Clearwater Revival / John Fogarty: 16
Elton John: 16
Bruce Springsteen : 16
The Strawbs: 16
Dion Di Mucci: 15
David Bowie: 14
Jethro Tull: 14
Rush: 14
The Who: 14
Chris de Burgh: 13
Metallica: 13
R.E.M.: 12
U2: 12
Dwight Yoakim: 12
John Hiatt: 11
Simon & Garfunkel / Paul Simon: 11
Dream Theater: 10
Paul McCartney: 10
Frank Zappa: 10

Obviously, this list contains most of my favorite artists, although the order above is not necessarily the same order I would list my favorites. For example, Chris de Burgh is one of my very favorites, but I had most of his output from the 1970s and 1980s on records which I have not replaced yet, another dozen albums. The same with the Strawbs and Bruce Springsteen, each of whom I have a half-dozen albums to replace.

As for books, I have 1,480 books of fiction, 206 books of nonfiction, and 1,349 prozines (covering 27 different titles). The most prominent authors of fiction in my collection (not including proznes) are:

Robert Silverberg: 46
Roger Zelazny: 35
C.J. Cherryh: 27
Jack Vance: 26
Clifford D. Simak: 23
Michael Bishop: 22
Samuel R. Delany: 21
Ursula K Le Guin: 19
Isaac Asimov: 18
Poul Anderson: 17
Marion Zimmer Bradley: 17
Robert A. Heinlein: 16
Kim Stanley Robinson: 16
Gene Wolfe: 16
Orson Scott Card: 14
Frederik Pohl: 13
Stephen King: 12
John Brunner: 11
Charles Sheffield: 11
John Varley: 11
Greg Benford: 9
Philip K Dick: 9
Philip José Farmer: 9
Jack McDevitt: 9
Larry Niven: 9
Dan Simmons: 9
H.G. Wells: 9
Brian W. Aldiss: 8
Edgar Rice Burroughs: 8
Charles de Lint: 8
Louis L’Amour: 8
Sherri S. Tepper: 8
Kate Wilhelm: 8

Not surprisingly, with the exception of Louis L’Amour, all of the most popular 20 authors write science fiction and/or fantasy (counting Stephen King as a fantasy writer). However, L’Amour is not my favorite western writer at all, since Elmer Kelton is a much superior writer who just missed being on the above list.

I was surprised that I have so many titles by Heinlein (whom I never particularly cared for) and Charles Sheffield (whom I did like, but I still did not realize I had nearly a dozen books by him). I’m not surprised that Silverberg and Zelazny top my collection, since they are two of my favorite three all-time writers (the third being Michael Bishop who has never been terribly prolific).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Summer reading

Summer is my prime reading season, and I finished 10 books the past 10 weeks, a typical pace for me. I enjoyed most of the books I read, but none of them was the type of “instant classic” like last summer’s The Judgment of Caesar, by Steven Saylor. So here are the books I read this summer in a rough descending order of enjoyment:

Title / Rating / Author
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan / B+ / Lisa See
Roma / B+ / Steven Saylor
Year’s Best Science Fiction 23rd vol/ B+ / Gardner Dozois ed.
Pillars of the Earth / B+ / Ken Follett
The Alien Years / B / Robert Silverberg
One for Sorrow / B / Mary Reed & Gary Mayer
The Sky People / B / S.M. Stirling
Flatlander/ B / Larry Niven
The Dragon’s Nine Sons / C / Chris Roberson
Use of Weapons / C / Iain M. Banks

A few comments:

While I enjoyed Roma, its wide spectrum drained it of the type of depth Saylor was able to indulge in his more narrowly-focused The Judgment of Caesar and Last Seen in Massilia, which is why it was a bit less successful;

Year’s Best Science Fiction must be rated on a harsher scale than the other books since editor Dozois had the entire year’s output of f&sf to choose from, and while I enjoyed the book overall (especially such stories as Robert Reed’s Great Ship mystery “Camouflage”, Harry Turtledove’s alternate history adventure “Audubon in Atlantis”, Chris Roberson’s bittersweet Celestial Empire tale “Gold Mountain”–which was far superior to his adventure novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons set in the same series–and, especially, Alastair Reynolds’ classic “Zima Blue”), there were too many stories in the book which were just all right, not really deserving of a “year’s best” designation.

While I really enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, the author’s thriller tendencies made parts of it a bit melodramatic and not totally-believable. Still, I look forward to reading his other historical epic World Without End.

Probably the most successful book overall that I read was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which fell just short of being an A book. I am also looking forward to See’s other acclaimed Chinese novel Peony in Love.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


It is easy to forget what a good storyteller Larry Niven was in his prime. In the past twenty years he has published twelve collaborations with numerous partners, 2 novels in the Ringworld series, and only 2 original solo novels. But in the twenty years prior to that, he was one of the more prolific storytellers in the field, and his Known Space series was one of the most interesting future histories.

Flatlander is a collection of the Gil the Arm Hamilton stories, mostly novellas. Gil Hamilton was a miner in the Belt who accidentally lost his right arm in an accident. Since neither prosthetics nor transplants were readily available in the asteroid belt, Hamilton developed a psychokinetic third arm which did everything a normal arm could do plus reach through solid objects. By the time Hamilton returned to Earth and got a transplanted arm, he began working for ARM, the police outlet of the United Nations, but his third arm remained.

Most of the stories in Flatlander involve Hamilton’s investigation of organleggers who kidnap people to sell their organs to hospitals and other less-scrupulous outlets. They also deal with a populace which, increasingly dependent on transplanted body parts, passes laws requiring the death penalty for more and more minor violations–too many traffic citations, cheating on taxes–with the body parts of the convicted being used for transplants to keep the increasingly selfish people alive and healthy. As a result, the life span of most flatlanders–people living on Earth rather than in space–has grown well past one hundred years. But with Earth’s population exceeding ten billion people, there are still not sufficient body parts available, hence organleggers.

What is interesting about these stories is not the solution of the murder mystery–which might be my own prejudices speaking–but what they show about the society itself, particularly the relationship between transplants, organleggers, and the selfishness of the populace. As Hamilton investigates each mystery, Niven gradually expands his society, slowly creating a wider and deeper world.

“Death by Ecstasy” involves a mining partner of Hamilton who is found dead in a particularly gruesome manner: electric current addicts frequently become so addicted to the ecstasy of currents directly entering their brain that they ignore such simple tasks as eating and drinking. Hamilton’s old partner is found chained to a chair in the throes of current ecstasy, dead after nine consecutive days of not eating or drinking. Not believing his partner would suicide in such a manner, Hamilton begins investigating the possibility of his having being involved with organleggers.

“The Defenseless Dead” involves corpiscles, people in suspended animation either because of severe injuries or mental diseases. The first freezer law has already mandated that anybody frozen who does not have sufficient assets to support themselves if resuscitated be sent to the organ banks. While that sated the public’s demand for body parts temporarily, and put a big crimp in the operations of organleggers, demand for body parts has again surpassed supply. So now the United Nations has proposed the second freezer law which mandates that any corpiscle with mental disease be sent to the organ banks. Except many of these people have rich relatives waiting for those deaths so they can inherit their estates. Naturally this involves Gil Hamilton who anticipates kidnappers seeking out the people most likely to inherit the most money upon the passing of the second freezer law.

The longest story in the book is “The Patchwork Girl” which was originally released as an independent novella. It involves a conference on the moon between lunies, belters (miners in the asteroid belt) and flatlanders to update United Nations laws concerning the moon. This has caused a lot of resentment among the lunies who strongly resent having only 4 delegates of the 10, thus being the minority members of a conference determining their own future. Before the conference even begins, one of the flatlander delegates is shot and the only suspect is a former lover of Gil Hamilton. Halfway through the story it is unclear what the murder has to do with the conference, or what the title–an obvious reference to organ transplants–has to do with anything. But the mystery continues to develop, as does Hamilton’s understanding of lunar society which, to me, is the most interesting part of the story.

While the stories in Flatlander are not great as future history, as a combination of society-building and mysteries they are excellent storytelling, and an incentive for me to go read some of Niven’s even better works such as A Gift From Earth and Neutron Star.