Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Julian Comstock

I have read a handful of Robert Charles Wilson novels previously, and I often had mixed feelings about them. He usually creates an interesting scenario, around which he tells a human-interest story showing the impact of that scenario on ordinary people’s lives. This is the type of story which I tend to enjoy, and I have found Wilson’s previous novels very readable and generally interesting, as were his characters.

But what I found frustrating about his novels is that often nothing seemed to be resolved. The world was the same at the end of the novel as it was at the beginning, which tended to make the sfnal foundation of the story more of an excuse to examine his characters than anything he cared to explore for its own sake. While there was always forward progress in the lives of the characters, there was little or no development in the speculative foundation of the story.

At times I wondered if Wilson was a frustrated literary writer who liked science fiction but did not really know what to do with it other than create his backgrounds. Darwinia was a book I expected to like a lot, but it was mildly disappointing. So was The Harvest. His Hugo-winning Spin was better in that some exploration of the speculative foundation actually took place, but I have not read the sequel Axis yet to see if he fully explored it.

Which brings us to Wilson’s novel Julian Comstock, a Hugo-nominee in 2010. Its scenario appealed to me considerably, since I have grown weary about near-future sf which always presupposes that advanced technology will continue to grow and expand into singularities, raptures and non-human humans. In my own unpublished science fiction, I have hypothesized a collapse of technology and, to a large extent, civilization, and Wilson has adopted the same scenario for Julian Comstock.

In the late 22nd century, America has expanded to 60 states, including most of Canada, but the technological level is fairly 19th centuryish, due to various collapses in the mid-21st century. The government still has a president and Senate, but the former is mostly a hereditary position, and the latter are chosen exclusively from rich aristocrats rather than from the various lower classes (which range from free workers to indentured servants who are no better than hereditary slaves).

There is also a union of churches known as the Dominion, which exerts a commanding influence over both the government and the lives of most Americans, so that life is fairly dominated by three institutions: president, Dominion and military.

The novel is narrated by Adam Hazzard, the son of a seamstress on an aristocrat estate controlled by a family which has a distant relationship to Declan Comstock, the current president who has remained in office many years. The president has forestalled any threat of an overthrow by trumping up charges against his very popular brother whose military victories against European invaders in eastern Canada made him a national hero, eventually having him executed. Now the president fears that his nephew Julian might become the pawn of his enemies in another attempt to replace him, so Julian’s mother has sent him to that estate to keep him as far away from Declan Comstock’s attention as possible. He is accompanied by a mentor Sam who serves as the surrogate arm of Julian’s mother, and he becomes fast friends with Adam who stays with him through the entire book.

The war against the Europeans is going badly, largely due to the president’s mismanagement of the military, so another round of large-scale recruitments is enforced, and Julian, Adam and Sam are forced into the military. Julian decides to hide his true identity by adopting a pseudonym, a wise decision since he soon shows himself to be a bit of a rebel as he questions the Dominion beliefs and authority constantly. He also displays some of his father’s military genius and gradually becomes a hero among his fellow soldiers.

Adam is a writer wannabe, who keeps a journal of their adventures in the military, much of it centered around Julian’s exploits. He becomes friendly with a war correspondent who is much less scrupulous than Adam realizes. He steals Adams writings and publishes it in New York City as his own work. As a result, Julian becomes a popular figure in the media, so that he and Adam are invited to New York City to be honored for his exploits. Ironically, the person doing the honoring is the president’s sister-in-law, who is Julian’s mother, so that his true identity is immediately revealed. Almost overnight, Julian Comstock becomes a national hero.

These are just the bare bones of the novel. Much of it is spent following the lives of Julian, Adam and Sam. All three come near death due to the president’s determination to have his troublesome nephew killed by withholding military support from their portion of the army. They encounter several interesting people in their travels, perhaps none moreso than Calyxa, a rebellious singer from Montreal who becomes Adam’s wife.

The book is not without some flaws. Good things happen to Julian a bit too easily at times. Adam’s naivete is too convenient to be totally believable. And some of the villains were too black-and-white where they might have been better developed had they showed a bit more shades of gray in their personalities.

But overall I empathized with the main characters, and enjoyed the events of the novel. It reminded me somewhat of the straight-forward storytelling of the 1950s, which stood up well so long as you did not think too deeply about what was taking place, lest the house of cards come tumbling down. For me, the cards did not fall down and I enjoyed Julian Comstock enough to give it an A ranking.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Year’s Best Sf 15

I read the first three volumes of David G. Hartwell & Katheryn Cramer's annual best-of series many years ago, then in the crush of books to read I skipped the next 11 volumes before my daughter-in-law gave me #14 as a gift one year, and I realized how good the series actually is. Just like #14, the stories in #15 are “unpretentious science fiction, running the gamut from traditional problem-solving to space opera, future history, and everything else which filled the pages of magazines such as Galaxy, Worlds of IF and Worlds of Tomorrow when they were my favorite zines in the 1960s.” But they are not deliberately old-fashioned sf, being thoroughly modern in approach and technique, just not obsessed with high-technology to the exclusion of good story-telling and such traditional tropes as sense of wonder and thoughtful speculation.

The fact that this volume is the best of the 6 I have read so far is a good sign that either Hartwell & Cramer are not losing their love of sf or that the sf field, even as it shrinks under the oppressive weight of fantasy and urban schlock, is going through a particularly fertile period right now. The stories in the volume come from a variety of sources: 13 stories from prozines, 2 online and 9 from original anthologies and collections.

My favorite stories include the following:

Alastair Reynolds’ “The Fixation” is a tale of how events in one universe can effect those in a parallel one unexpectedly;

Sarah L. Edwards’ “Lady of the White-Spired City” is a moody tale with a fantasy ambiance about a galactic traveler who returns to a world she had visited hundreds of years ago where she had a child which she abandoned to return to space;

Robert Charles Wilson’s “This Peaceable Land” is a scary alt history of what might have happened had the Civil War been averted by President Stephen Douglas;

Vandana Singh’s “Infinities” is a warm peon to mathematics (a subject dear to my own heart) about a math teacher in India who is obsessed by infinity. An engrossing tale, which unfortunately faded out rather than reach a fitting conclusion;

Michael Cassutt’s “The Last Apostle” is an alt hist about two Apollo astronauts who discover unmistakable signs of life from ancient Earth on the moon, and decided to conceal it;

Chris Robinson’s alt history “Edison’s Frankenstein” which hypothesizes the discovery of a new power source in the mid 18th century which both ends the Civil War and makes Thomas Edison’s discovery of electricity irrelevant.

There are numerous others fine stories by Yoon Ha Lee, Bruce Sterling, Nancy Kress, Gene Wolfe, Peter Watts (his Hugo-winning “The Island”), Brian Stapleford, Paul Cornell, Stephen Baxter and others. This volume is must-reading for fans of traditional science fiction with a modern emphasis.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder (aka Science Fiction 101)

I am probably not the primary audience for this book, which, although published originally in 1987, and reprinted under its new title in 2001, is aimed at three groups, in roughly descending order of importance:

• fans of science fiction interested in reading some of the finest stories the field has produced;
• new writers of science fiction hoping to master their craft and cross the bridge into professional writing;
• fans of Robert Silverberg wishing to learn a bit about his own path from amateur writer to professional.

Let’s see how I fit into each target audience:

• I am certainly not a new reader of science fiction, having first discovered the genre in the early 1960s and having previously read every story in this book except one;
• having written science fiction for roughly 40 years, either I already know all the “secrets” in this book (regardless of my apparently inability to put them into practice), or I do not yet know them (which would make me far too slow a learner to ever achieve writing success);
• Robert Silverberg is my favorite writer of science fiction, so I have read many prior essays by him, in which he discussed much of the same territory discussed in this book.

That being said, Worlds of Wonder is a fascinating book. Silverberg is such a smooth, interesting writer that his autobiographical essays, the longest opening the book and others infused into critiques of the individual stories, are all very enjoyable reading. The essays might not appeal to every reader as much as it did to me though, since I experienced many of the same childhood traits that Silverberg himself did, including a lifelong passion for writing science fiction.

As for the stories themselves, Silverberg has selected what he considers ideal examples of successful science fiction stories, and he has succeeded in nearly every case. The book opens with Damon Knight’s “Four in One,” a straight-forward examination of how four people having different personalities and agendas can survive when they are ingested into an alien body and forced to live as a composite being. This taut story successfully combines a struggle to survive along with a close look at a very alien type of being.

The next two stories were my favorites. Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” was ostensibly a tale of an evil robot, complete with Bester’s masterful writing flourishes and misdirections that lead to an unexpected but very satisfying conclusion that redirected everything I thought I understood previously in the story.

C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” was written in the 1940s but was at least two decades ahead of its time in its character-study of a woman whose brain is saved from a devastating fire by being placed into a robot body. But not just any body, and therein lies much of the story’s power. Silverberg marvels at how this story must have affected readers of 1940s Astounding and I totally agree with him. Had this story been published 25 years later, it would have been hailed as one of the highlights of the late 1960s New Wave.

“The Monsters” is a role-reversal story by Robert Sheckley, told from the viewpoint of a race of aliens experiencing the arrival of a human spaceship on their world. Sheckley was a master of making a philosophical point in a brief, satirical story, and in this story he was at the top of his form.

“Scanners Live in Vain” was the first published sf story by the brilliant Cordwainer Smith, who for two decades wrote a series of pseudonymous stories deservedly admired by both sf readers and writers. Smith understood the structure and intent of a science fiction story as well as any author, combining straightforward storytelling with wondrous ideas that always left you with a lot of food for thought. He was at the top of his form when he died abruptly in 1966, with stories such as “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and his only novel Norstrilia. Had he continued writing for another two decades, I suspect his body of work might now be considered the very peak of 20th century sf. Outstanding though “Scanners Live in Vain,” is, it barely scratches the surface of the talent of Paul Linebarger (the man behind the pseudonym), and I strongly encourage you to read either Norstrilia or the NESFA Press edition of The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

And there’s still much more, including:

• Brian W. Aldiss’ “Hothouse,” one of the wondrous far-future stories which made his early reputation, part of a series of stories sharing that setting;
• Jack Vance’s “The New Prime,” about the ruler of the entire galaxy who nears the conclusion of his reign of office;
• Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag,” which, like Sheckley’s story, reveals some universal truths beneath its humorous surface story;
• Bob Shaw’s “Light of Other Days,” one of the greatest sf concepts ever devised, and a personal favorite story as well.

Anybody who cares about becoming a writer can do a lot worse than using this anthology as their first textbook. But anybody who has not read the majority of stories in it should buy it immediately (assuming they can find it on sale somewhere) for the stories themselves. Robert Silverberg has always had exquisite taste as an anthologist. I have more than 20 reprint anthologies edited by him, and I have enjoyed every one of them. This collection ranks among the finest of them for its excellence. I recommend it highly for all readers of science fiction.