Visions of Paradise

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Brain Wave

In 1967, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (for the first time, but definitely not for the last time). My bonus for joining was Anthony Boucher 1000+ page Treasury of Great Science Fiction (in two volumes). In addition to a wealth of short stories and novelettes, the collection contained 4 complete novels (which tells you something about the length of sf novels then as compared to now; in many ways, I still prefer the shorter, punchier novels of that era to the bloated novels of this era), three of which have stayed in my memory over the decades as truly outstanding: John Wyndham’s Rebirth, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Poul Anderson’s break-through novel Brain Wave.

Recently I decided to go back and reread at least part of those two volumes, and I decided to start with the Anderson and Bester novels in volume 2. Since Brain Wave opened the volume, I would start there. While I recall the book’s premise, I remembered almost none of the book’s actual plot and only one specific scene early in the novel, a memory which might be a result of my having been a math major in college when I first read the novel: in the first few pages, Anderson sets the framework for how the Earth has passed out of a galactic region which inhibited intelligence of all creatures for several million years. In showing the resulting increase in intelligence, he focuses on a pre-teenaged boy who is studying algebra and begins wondering what would happen if the value of x changes from 2 to 3. But he does not change the value abruptly, but rather “sneaks up” on 3. Anderson then goes on to matter-of-factly mention that “he was well on his way to inventing differential calculus when his mother called him down to breakfast.”

That scene excited me again when I read it, and raised my level of anticipation considerably. But any writer can devise a fabulous premise, which Brain Wave definitely has, but it takes an outstanding writer to turn it into an equally thought-provoking novel, and Anderson succeeded totally in that as well. The rest of the relatively-short novel examines the aftereffect of the abrupt tripling of every creature’s intelligence both on people’s lives and on society as a whole. He shows the inevitable breakdown of society as people walk away from tedious jobs, including subsequent riots over the lack of food distribution and other anticipated services. There are civil wars in dictatorships where people rebel against long-time repression.

But, overall, it is an optimistic novel so we see how drastically-increased intelligence overcomes most of those crises relatively quickly. The main focal characters include a business manager who becomes virtual overload of a region stretching from New England to New York City, and a scientist involved in building a faster-than-light spaceship. But the most interesting parts of the novel focus on two other characters:

• Sheila, the wife of the scientist who is unable to adapt to increased intelligence and is diagnosed as “insane,” when all she really wants is to return to her former level of intelligence, which she determines to do;

• Archie Brock, who was a simple-minded farm hand who stays behind on the farm when all the other workers flee out of boredom. Archie develops a new type of communal living structure with a strange group including many of the farm’s animals (who are now intelligent enough to determine their own lives), a group of runaway circus animals (led by an intelligent elephant and monkeys), and other former “morons,” whose increased intelligence surpass what you and I currently have.

As is typical of an Anderson novel, there is the potential for a fast-paced thriller, but he represses that instinct to concentrate on the human element, while never forgetting how important pacing is to a well-told story. I have enjoyed reading Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories recently, but Brain Wave is an entire level higher, ranking among the truly great science fiction novels. It certainly made me glad I decided to reread it, and convinced me to read the rest of the volume as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Worlds of IF, July, September 1952

Continuing my slow reading of 1950s issues of Galaxy and IF brought me to the July and September, 1952 issues of If. The July 1952 issue had a lead novella by Walter M. Miller, Jr. “Let My People Go,” his second story in the first three issues of the magazine. While these two stories were not quite at the level of his 1950s masterworks as “Crucifixus Etiam,” “Conditionally Human,” and the deserved Hugo-winner “The Darfstellar,” they are still the best stories in the early issues of IF, which makes me wonder why there has never been a collection of his complete short fiction. He only published about 30 stories besides his two novels A Canticle For Leibowitz (which was really a fix-up of three novellas) and the long-delayed sequel St. Leibowitz and The Wild Horse Woman (which took Miller the rest of his life to write, and had to be finished by Terry Bisson after his death).

The September issue also had a novelette by Philip K. Dick entitled “The Skull,” one of his very earliest published stories whose plot should seem very familiar to anybody who read sf in the late 1960s. In the future, a repressive government is having difficulty dealing with the devoted members of a vast religion who believe in peace without war, which goes counter to the needs of the government. So they send a killer two hundred years back in time to find the spiritual source of the religion, a mysterious man who appeared in a midwestern town and gave a talk which had such an impression on his listeners that they formed a religion around his ideas.

Part of the mystique of the founder was that several of his followers saw the man again a few months later after he had been seized and executed by government officials. So when the killer arrives a few months later than intended, and his appearance stuns the first people he meets, anybody who doubted where this story was headed knew immediately. My immediate thought at that point was that Michael Moorcock must have read “The Skull” at some time before he conceived the idea for his masterpiece “Behold the Man.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The City & The City

Even though Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl won more awards for Best Novel of 2009, China Miéville’s The City & The City dominated the lists as easily the most acclaimed novel of the year. Recently I bought both books and eventually hope to have my own opinion on which is better.

The City & the City begins as a routine mystery set in a fictional city of Besźel involving the murder of a graduate student. But as the novel goes on, there is mention of another city named Ul Qoma which seemingly inhabits the same piece of land as Besźel, except people in one city are forbidden from seeing either the inhabitants or the landmarks of the other. Intermingled with the murder is talk about the mysterious time in the distant past when the one city split into two cities as well as a war between them. While it is possible to travel from one city to the other, there are legal ways to do so similar to traveling to a foreign country. And when inhabitants of one city need to contact somebody in the other, it is similar to phoning a foreign country. Should somebody try to enter one city from the other city illegally–which can be done at various "cross-hatching" sites in either city–or even intermingle with somebody from the other city, it is illegal and apt to attract the attention of an entity (perhaps a supernatural one, although the inhabitants of the two cities are not sure about its origins) called the Breach which has the power to cause a person’s permanent disappearance.

As police detective and narrator Borlú investigates the murder, he learns that the victim had lived in Besźel originally, but relocated to Ul Qoma for her studies, even though her murdered body was discovered back in Besźel. Because of her questionable beliefs concerning the twin cities, she had gotten involved with various political groups, incurring the wrath of a Besźel patriotic group, and possibly a Ul Qoma patriotic group as well. To make matters even more complicated, she dabbled in the theories of a disreputable scientist who believed in the existence of a third city Orciny situated on the same piece of land as both Besźel and Ul Qoma, but somehow between the other two cities.

When Borlú learns of the involvement of both cities in the case, he brings his evidence to a group who serves as “secret masters” of both cities, containing members from both cities who meet in a building situated on the overlap between them. At first the group decides that the murder can best be solved not by police of either city, but by the mysterious Breach itself, to whom they turn over the mystery, but soon afterwards that decision is mysteriously overturned and jurisdiction returned to Inspector Borlú.

This might all sound somewhat confusing, but it is not really at all. Miéville unpeels the layers of the cities like an onion, slowly and carefully as the murder investigation progresses, and it not only becomes believable but more and more enthralling as the novel continues.

The second portion of the novel takes place in Ul Qoma where Borlú is a visiting inspector working with Inspector Dhatt. We soon learn that while Besźel is an open society which has ties with America, Ul Qoma is a closed society which is compared to Cuba and China in the novel. America refuses to have any dealings with Ul Qoma, even though it is considerably more prosperous and advanced than Besźel. Instead it has close dealings with Canada. Borlú’s time in Ul Qoma is fascinating, and the mystery both deepens and spreads wider as two more people connected with the murdered girl also disappear, and the mystery of Orciny, which has been disregarded as pure legend by most inhabitants of the two cities, including both investigating officers, eventually becomes an important part of the investigation.

I dare not say too much more about The City & The City without treading on spoilers, so suffice it to say this novel has numerous appeals to it: as a fascinating murder mystery (usually not my type of fiction, but Miéville has overturned that prejudice), as an exploration of an outrageous concept which actually works and provides considerable thought, and as a character study of the differences between living in an open and closed society. I recommend this book very highly and give it my top rating of A.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Moonfall is the only Jack McDevitt novel I had not read yet. Even though he is my favorite current writer, all of his other novels which I have enjoyed (with the exception of Time Travelers Never Die) combined far-future views of Earth with glimpses of that future’s history, and strong doses of sense of wonder wrapped around interesting mysteries. But Moonfall was different from those novels. It was a near-future disaster novel / thriller about a giant comet which crashes into the moon and threatens life on Earth.

But I could only hold out so long before getting a copy of the missing novel to read. In spite of my love of McDevitt’s fiction, I did not have particularly high expectations for Moonfall, and I am pleased to say that I was wrong: those expectations were easily surpassed in what was a very enjoyable novel. Much of the book’s first half concentrated on the people working and studying on the moon at the time of the comet’s sudden arrival. Fortunately, there were no colonists there yet, so it was anticipated that there were sufficient numbers of “micro-buses” and spacecraft to evacuate in the few days’ notice. While that seems incredibly short notice for the arrival of a comet, considering that they are generally spotted while still out in the Oort Cloud with many months’ advance notice. McDevitt used his one “stretch the disbelief” moment with some mumbo-jumbo about a giant comet traveling ten times faster than the typical celestial visitor.

However, an unexpected emergency with one micro-bus causes a delay in the evacuation, so it turns out one less rescue mission than necessary will be possible, stranding a half-dozen people on the moon when the comet hits. The novel’s second half shows the effects of the impending comet’s arrival, as well as the aftermath of its striking the moon, on refugees from the moon itself, on various orbiting space stations and on Earth. The bulk of the time though is spent with those half-dozen people who are the core of the novel, the last group of refugees on the moon who attempt a stunning, last-second escape. They include:

• the vice-president of the United States, who was attending a ceremony on the moon and decided at the spur of the moment that it was his duty to be the last person standing on the moon who would thus “turn out the lights and close the door.” Of course, he made that claim before the incident with the micro-bus which made it unlikely all the moon’s residents could be evacuated;

• an international news reporter who decided incorrectly that the government would never allow the vice-president to endanger his life, so he also decided to stay until the last group out. Little did he know that the vice-president had stayed against the direct orders of the president;

• a non-denominational minister who experiences a spiritual boost while on the moon followed soon by his questioning a god who would endanger all life of Earth so capriciously;

• Evelyn, an administrator on the moon who becomes the confidante of the vice-president;

• the pilot and co-pilot of the micro-bus who endanger their own lives attempting the risky last-minute rescue.

After the comet hits the moon–AND THIS IS A BIT OF A SPOILER–the moon breaks up, and large portions begin descending on Earth, causing considerable damage when they hit inland, and devastating tsunamis when they land in the ocean (I finished reading this book the night before the earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunamis, which felt a bit weird). Moonfall follows the efforts of several groups to survive while the last group of moon refugees are still struggling to escape.

McDevitt avoided most of the tired clichés of some disaster novels, with only one portion about a right-wing group which decides to do everything possible to prevent the rescue efforts on Earth. All in all, this was a strong and enjoyable novel, in large part due to the group of last refugees who became real people easy to care about. While not quite on the level of his Alex Benedict or Academy books, or his best standalone Infinity Beach, Moonfall is still highly-recommended.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Year's Best Science Fiction (26th volume), part two

Geoff Ryman’s “Days of Wonder” hypothesizes a distant future in which humans no longer exist on Earth, but have been replaced by semi-intelligent animals. The story’s main focus is on horselike beings whose main threat is predatory cats. On an annual equine migration, the cats capture and kill the young foal of a horse who had been one of the herd leaders. Soon after, she captures an injured cat following an unsuccessful ambush, and she cares for it as a replacement for her foal. Needless to say, this causes considerable consternation among the other horses.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has established herself as a major mystery writer under several pseudonyms, and that success has carried over into her science fiction. Her series of Retrieval Artist novels are successful sf mysteries, as is her story “G-Men,” which originally appeared in an original anthology Sideways in Crime, devoted to that sub-genre. It tells two different but related stories, one a 1960s alternate history mystery involving the assassination of another important political figure between the murders of JFK and RFK. The other is a political power struggle between attorney general RFK and new president LBJ. Both stories were fascinating, and successfully done.

My choice for the best story in the volume is “The Erdmann Nexus,” by Nancy Kress. She is one of the finest writers of short fiction in the sf field, and has been so for thirty years. I recall such great stories as “Out of All them Bright Stars,” “The Price of Oranges,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” and “Beggars in Spain.” This Hugo Award-winner belongs among that group. It is set in a senior citizen complex where strange things are happening to several elderly residents, mysterious brain spasms which have no medical cause. The story has a well-developed cast worthy of an entire novel: Dr. Henry Erdmann, one of the residents and a theoretical physicist; Carrie, an aide who has developed a close relationship to him; Jake DeBella, a research scientist. And twice as many minor characters, all better-developed than major characters are in many novels. The strangeness grows, the mystery becomes deeper, as do the relationships, all merging in a satisfying conclusion which reminded me of–THIS IS A SPOILER!–Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End. If Kress ever expands this story into a novel (it’s already a novella of nearly 40,000 words), I will buy it as soon as it is available.

James Alan Gardner’s “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” is a most unlikely premise to be any good. A somewhat geeky teenager discovers a truly alien weapon deep in the woods, and it basically takes over his life. He decides he can become a super-hero with it, so spends as much time as possible training both his physical body and his mind, being totally obsessed with what he calls the “ray gun.” That obsession breaks up two romances, and inadvertently causes the death of one girl. But the story works, mostly as a metaphor for how geeky kids often fixate on one particular aspect of their life (Star Wars, comic books, video games) to the exclusion of all others.

There were many other good stories in the collection, 30 stories in all, but those were my favorite baker’s dozen, in what was one of the better volumes in an overall recommended annual series.