Sunday, March 28, 2010

#13 Ringworld, #2 Ender's Game


“The gods do not protect fools. Fools are protected by more capable fools.” 
“For two hundred and fifty years the kzinti had not attacked human space. They had nothing to attack with. For two hundred and fifty years men had not attacked the kzinti worlds; and no kzin could understand it. Men confused them terribly.”  
Ringworld, by Larry Niven, is a classic of Hard SF, science fiction which focuses on the scientifically plausible, and explains to you how it is scientifically possible. This sub genre focuses less on the intricacies of human interaction or the supernatural, and more on hard scientific facts and concrete possibilities. In fact, Niven's description of the Ringworld artificial object are so thorough in this novel that MIT students and the like have gone about trying to find out if such an object could feasibly exist. Due to all this very thorough, scientifically-sound description, the novel, as one might imagine, can be a little lacking in terms of excitement and a quick-moving plot at times.
The plot of Ringworld concerns four crew members who go on an exploration of an enormous ring-shaped artificial object encircling a sun. This thing in thousands of times bigger than Earth, and quite mysterious. The diverse cast of protagonists exploring this Ringworld are:  a 200 year old bored rich guy Louis Wu,  a genetically-bred-to-be-lucky hot babe Teela Brown, an enormous cat-like alien (kzin), Speaker-to-Animals, and a second, more mysterious alien who seems to know more about the journey than anyone else, and isn't willing to admit it; the Puppeteer Nessus. They take a journey to explore the ring world and essentially this book is about their explorations of the world and their discoveries on it.
It can be a pretty interesting book in sections, but it does plod at times, and the endless explanations of the Ringworld's dimensions (which, as mentioned above, are considered exciting by scientists who have attempted to see if the Ringworld's existence in space is physically possible) can get tedious for the casual reader... which this reviewer admittedly is! After a bit of exploring, Louis, Teela, Speaker-to-Animals, and Nessus attempt to find out why the Ringworld was created and by whom. The conclusion of this particular novel is somewhat unsatisfying in this regard, and, as is often the case, leaves room for sequels.
My final verdict comes out like this: It's certainly an interesting one, with some pretty cool, new SF concepts, like the genetic breeding of luck and boosterspice, which conveys near immortality upon those ingesting it ( sound familiar...melange from Dune?), but it can get confusing and overly scientific for the casual reader. However, Ringworld is a must if you are a hard-SF kinda person who likes to figure out if things are possible in your science fiction readings -- Niven provides you with the dimensions, etc. of the Ringworld, so you can figure it out for yourself. If one bases quality of science fiction on actual scientific content, then yes, this is a true masterwork, maybe the best Hard SF novel written. For me, more of the casual SF reader than the actual scientist type, this book is good; not great. As hard SF goes, I found Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama to be superior, although it contained less story, and more exploration than Ringworld. Still, casual readers, it's worth a read considering its importance to the genre, so I'd recommend at least starting it to see how you like it. 

Ender's Game

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them.... I destroy them.” 
“An enemy, Ender Wiggin," whispered the old man. "I am your enemy, the first one you've ever had who was smarter than you. There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong. And the rules of the game are what you can do to him and what you can stop him from doing to you. I am your enemy from now on. From now on I am your teacher.”  
“He could see Bonzo's anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender's anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo's was hot, and so it used him.” 

Orson Scott Card blasted onto the SF scene with this novel, and some people hold it in higher regard than any other SF novel ever written, and find the short story it was based off to be the best SF short story as well. I am not that enamored with Ender's Game, but I will definitely admit it is an excellent SF novel, a modern masterwork that can stand with the best of the genre. When reading Ender's Game, it can be tempting to declare it the best SF novel ever as you are reading it; it's philosophic content and overall atmosphere are, at times, that good. However when you consider novels ( that are, in my opinion superior) such as Dune, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Star Maker, etc. , things are put into perspective.
The New York Times reviewer who reviewed Ender's Game (right after a favorable review of his of Chapterhouse Dune), condemns Ender's Game as too violent. I can agree with this assessment for the most part. Ender, as a very young child, viciously kills several kids, although not without extreme provocation, and the author deals with these deaths in a strangely distant, slightly disturbing manner. When his actions, and his apparent genius are noticed by the government, Ender is sent to a military school for child geniuses to be trained to fight in the war against the alien Buggers. There, he excels, as evidenced by the justifiably famous sequences in the Battle Room, which are action-packed and fun to read. It soon becomes clear that Ender Wiggin is destined for greatness. The end sequence in which Ender is playing a game in front of an audience, unwittingly extinguishing an entire alien race, is excellent, and quite memorable.
Overall, I felt that the philosophizing in this novel is probably the reason why one would feel this novel to be the greatest SF of all time. It is really is excellent, especially in the Demosthenes and Locke sequences, in which Ender's siblings show that they too, are extraordinarily gifted in matters intellectual and specifically, the field of politics. Another excellent scene from this modern SF classic is the conversation near the lake, a break in the action that sticks in one's mind long after completing this novel.
Ender's Game is a great novel, and I'd recommend it to anyone, especially people with very little SF knowledge, just to show them how action-packed, philosophical, and just plain good SF can be. Is it overrated? Maybe a fraction of a hair: some rabid fans of the novel have already crowned it the greatest SF novel ever, which is the only reason that I am holding back on fully praising it, taking into account the long, illustrious history of science fiction as a genre. It's definitely a classic of the genre, but I don't think it is the singular best novel ever written in the genre. But, don't be put off by the cautionary nature of my past few statements; some evidently feel that Ender's Game is that good. So, in conclusion... I will ask this question of myself: It is still excellent? Hell yes. 

#10: Starship Troopers, #115: Star Maker

Starship Troopers:

"There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men."
“The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. . . . A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual's instinct to survive--and nowhere else!--and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.
We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race . . . .
The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual.” 
Starship Troopers is a classic of the subgenre of Military SF and, along with Ender's Game and The Forever War, probably one of the best novels of that subgenre. It is nothing like the film, which is an all-action, poorly written bomb, according to most movie reviewers.
I expected a fair amount of action from a book called "Starship Troopers", but there was less than I expected. However, the book as a whole vastly exceeded my expectations, which I admittedly got from the cover art and reading the back of the book. It's definitely a science fiction classic, although many critics have dismissed it, claiming that it promotes militarism. This claim is hard to argue with if you read the book, because, to be honest, it promotes militarism quite aggressively. Much of the book is focused on the neccesities of war, capital punishment, and dealing with juvenile delinquents. While reading it, I thought to myself, this is the kind of book politically-correct liberals would HATE. However, I am not one of those people, I'm an independent-leaning-conservative, so I found the book to be quite enjoyable, and I don't think you necessarily have to agree with Heinlein to enjoy Starship Troopers.
But make no mistake, some very strong views definitely come through (whether or not they are actually Heinlein's is the subject of some debate). This is one of the most criticized SF books of all time, and as you read it, it becomes clear that it would be very polarizing.
It is essentially a military essay, as the reader is taken back to Juan Rico's training to be an Infantryman, so he can fight in the war between earth and the arachnoid '"bugs". However, the battle with the bugs is just background story, the real plot of this book is Juan's trek through military training camp, filled with all sorts of militaristic philosophizing and the like. Let me stress this, if I haven't done so already, because this is the lifeblood of Starship Troopers: The conservative viewpoints in this novel are definitely not stated in a half-assed way. But by speaking through tough sergeants and instructors, Heinlein makes this military classic all the more realistic and unyieldingly right-wing. You could either appreciate this novel immensely, or, you could react as one of the leaders of the world in Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergerson", and get all politically correct. This book is required reading at all of the U.S military academies, and is an important book for SF in terms of the controversy and polarization it caused.
Read it if you are conservative or independent, and you'll probably agree with some of the views to some extent, and like or love the novel. If you read it, and you're staunchly liberal, you'll probably throw it against the wall in anger. But still, I'd recommend it to anyone just because of that. 

Star Maker:

“Sitting there on the heather, on our planetary grain, I shrank from the
abysses that opened up on every side, and in the future. The silent
darkness, the featureless unknown, were more dread than all the terrors
that imagination had mustered. Peering, the mind could see nothing sure,
nothing in all human experience to be grasped as certain, except
uncertainty itself; nothing but obscurity gendered by a thick haze of
theories. Man's science was a mere mist of numbers; his philosophy but a
fog of words. His very perception of this rocky grain and all its
wonders was but a shifting and a lying apparition. Even oneself, that
seeming-central fact, was a mere phantom, so deceptive, that the most
honest of men must question his own honesty, so insubstantial that he
must even doubt his very existence.” 

“In this passionately social world, loneliness dogged the spirit. People were constantly “getting together,” but they never really got there. Everyone was terrified of being alone with himself; yet in company, in spite of the universal assumption of comradeship, these strange beings remained as remote from one another as the stars. For everyone searched his neighbour’s eyes for the image of himself, and never saw anything else. Or if he did, he was outraged and terrified.”  
Star Maker is one of the best SF novels I've ever read, no doubt about it. It's wondrous, to put it in a word. It was written by Olaf Stapledon, and has attracted quite a lot of praise from hotshots of Science Fiction like: H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and Robert Silverberg, and well as hotshots of "Serious Literature" , such as Virginia Woolf, C.S Lewis, Doris Lessing, and the highly esteemed Jorge Luis Borges!! Okay, so why have you never heard of it, even if you consider yourself a fairly big SF fan? 
Well, basically, it's a difficult book to read. I'll go ahead and give you the "problem" some critics seem to have with it: there is no dialogue.
Okay, still up for it? Star Maker is about 240 pages, and the language used in it is awesome in every sense of the word, but so powerful and large in scope that it can be hard to get through. Star Maker concerns an unnamed narrator who goes out on to a hill to contemplate the universe, and, through his mind, encounters many wonders, leading up to his meeting of the Star Maker, the creator of this universe and millions of others.
The opening scene is brilliant, Chapter Fifteen is epic, and the epilogue is awesome in scope. I have to recommend Star Maker very strongly, but with a warning: this novel is very dense, but in the best sense of the word possible. Give it a try, but don't try to rush through it like a typical 240 page book. Read a few pages and think them over... Stapledon introduces you to many alien races in various types of sub-utopia, empire, or socialist government: you meet the denizens of the Other Earth, in which taste, rather than sight, is the overwhelming sense, and on which creamy-white deserts dominate the planet in the same way that oceans dominate our own Earth, you meet races in which immortality is essentially reached through technological means, and people are only euthanized after tens of thousands of years if they become mentally unaware of their own personhood, you meet icthyoids and arachnoids who become symbiotes, and thus two of the universe's most succesfull sentient species, and you meet alien creatures completely unlike Earth creatures: beings formed of music and light.
The book is altogether a great one, but it certainly isn't light airplane reading. If you consider yourself a serious fan of SF who has an attention span and is ready for a challenge, read it and you won't be disappointed. It influenced science fiction authors immensely, thus leaving a lasting impression on the genre through their works as well. There's a reason Brian Aldiss called Star Maker "the great grey book of science fiction". Although many fans of the genre aren't familiar with it, many of the best science fiction authors of the twentieth century are, and it shows in their works. It's a wondrous work by a man who obviously possessed one of the most fertile and powerful imaginations in literature. 

#3: The Foundation Trilogy, # 77 The Invisible Man

The Foundation Trilogy:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” 
“Now any dogma, based primarily on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user.”
“The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.”  
“The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.” 

Foundation is undoubtedly one of the cornerstone works of science fiction. It traces the decline and fall of a galactic empire, partially based off Gibbon's esteemed history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The trilogy is made up of three books, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. It is often a chart-topper on SF lists, and is mentioned in the company of works like Dune, Childhood's End, Stranger in a Strange Land, 1984, and Brave New World.
This trilogy has to do with how psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicts, through advanced psychology, history, and science, the events of the next few hundreds of years. His predictions (which turn out to be mostly accurate) yield the fact that the Galactic Empire will fall. He is accused of treason, but not before he manages to set up two secret Foundations, centers of education, art, and knowledge, at opposite ends of the universe.
This series traces the Foundations' struggles while the Empire falls apart around them. In the first novel, simply titled Foundation, Seldon's new science of psychohistory is shown to be correct again and again, despite the attempts of certain individuals to sway the course of history which has been predicted.
The next book in the series is called Foundation and Empire. The first half of this novel mainly concerns the dying Empire, based from Trantor, and one of its generals, who is intent on destroying the First Foundation. The second part of the novel is where psychohistory is thrown a curveball: This part concerns an unforeseen villain, the Mule, a mutant who rises from the ashes of the Empire to challenge the first Foundation's newfound supremecy in the Galaxy.
In the third and final novel, Second Foundation, the heroes of the First Foundation battle against the Mule with some help from the mysterious, behind-the-scenes psychics of the Second Foundation. Finally, Second Foundation concludes as the people of Terminus, the First Foundation, embark on a quest to find the Second Foundation, a host of mental supermen who apparently have been pulling all the strings more than anyone thought.
Asimov's writing in this trilogy is very straightforward and entertaining. He throws in intellectual and scientific discourse as well. Yes, he's not exactly Shakespeare or James Joyce as a writer, technically speaking, but he still gets the job done.
Foundation is undoubtedly one of THE classics of SF, and if you had to read ten sci-fi books to get a feel for the genre, Foundation would have to be on the list. This trilogy has immense sentimental value for any science fiction author growing up in the Golden Age of SF. The Foundation Trilogy is simply an intelligent, well-paced tale of space that should not be missed by any serious fan of Sci-fi. It's possibly the most beloved work of science fiction ever produced, and there's a reason it was named the best series of all time by the voters of the Hugo Award, beating out The Lord of the Rings. 

The Invisible Man:

“All men, however highly educated, retain some superstitious inklings.” 
“The Anglo-Saxon genius for parliamentary government asserted itself; there was a great deal of talk and no decisive action.”  
“I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got.” 

The Invisible Man is H.G Wells' story of a mad scientist who finds a way to make himself invisible and subsequently wreaks havoc all over England --and it's a classic of early science fiction. The story is quite straightforward and decently written, and undoubtedly an important early work of SF. I wouldn't call it great, but its certainly a good read, and a decent introduction to Wells. This is the kind of imaginative detail which made Wells one of the first real science fiction authors.
A key element of this novel that must be noted is the fact that Griffin, the mad scientist, cannot become visible again. He chooses to be swathed in bandages, and tries to find a remedy for his invisibility, but the curiosity of the people around him is what eventually drives him to madness. They bring about their own fate by disturbing the man who just wants to be left alone. Wells conveys the wide-eyed stupidity of the average Brit, with their coarse accents and such, and contrasts it well with Griffin's not-to-be-trifled-with attitude.
Wells' descriptions at first paint Griffin as somewhat of a villain, but those that he attacks are so bumbling, meddlesome, and incompetent that they become hard to root for. In one part of the story Griffin even confides in a friend, and hopes that the friend will not give him away to the authorities searching for him. You end up feeling sorry for Griffin towards the novel's conclusion, but it becomes evident that his death is the only way to end the story. Griffin's interference with the fabric of nature turn his fellow humans against him, and he ends up quite mad --but it is also the lack of levelheadedness in the people around him that drives Griffin to his sorry mental state.
There's no doubt that The Invisible Man is a must-read for H.G. Wells and Jules Verne fans; it's truly a bona-fide classic of early Sci-Fi. For the general science fiction reading audience, I'll offer this: The Invisible Man is a short, easy, enjoyable read --I'd say have a look at it especially if you're just starting out reading sci-fi. It introduces the reader to a lot of themes you'll find present in other SF books, because of Wells' immense influence on the genre.
Like many of Wells' other science fiction novels, this comparatively conventional Sci-Fi tale is probably a better starter than the genre's more demanding works like Philip K Dick's mind-bending novel, Now Wait For Last Year, or Olaf Stapledon's exquisite, complex work, Star Maker. 

#45: Ubik, #111 God Emperor of Dune


“We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.”
“He felt all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.”  
“It did not seem possible that Wendy Wright had been born out of blood and internal organs like other people. In proximity to her he felt himself to be a squat, oily, sweating, uneducated nurt whose stomach rattled and whose breath wheezed. Near her he became aware of the physical mechanisms which kept him alive; within him machinery, pipes and valves and gas-compressors and fan belts had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed. Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class wind-up toy.” 

Ubik is known as one of author Philip K. Dick's greatest novels. It seems to be up there with, say, The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and maybe A Scanner Darkly in what is widely regarded as the top tier of Dick novels. (I don't necessarily agree with the esteem placed on every one of these titles, but that's for other reviews...)
For a short book, this novel is INSANE. This is the only word to describe Ubik, insane. It is set in the near future, in which telepaths run their own businesses and can be hired for out for the purpose of snooping into other people's affairs. This and a few other inventions make Ubik Sci-Fi; Man has colonized the moon, but has not yet gone outside the solar system in the world of Ubik. Snottily intelligent furniture such as couches and doors charge people small amounts of pocket change to open them or sit on them, and refuse people into their own apartments with attitudes usually only associated with humans. Another vital technology that has emerged on Earth is "half-death" --when a relative of someone is near death, that person can choose to put the dying person into a stasis tank where they will be held in suspended animation for as long as that person can keep up the large flow of money required to rent a stasis tank out. The "half-dead" person can be communicated with, but they cannot physically do anything.
The main characters of Ubik: Joe Chip, Glen Runciter, and Pat Conley, are anti-telepaths, people of a corporation that is hired out to block regular telepaths from snooping. If you've read Dick before, you know that story-line: mixing the supernatural with practical shallow consumerism and greed is pure PKD. On a trip to the moon, Runciter, the boss of the anti-telepath company, is seemingly killed by his competitors in the telepath business. Joe Chip, his second-in-command takes over, and returns to Earth, but soon after, extremely strange things start happening.
One classic scene of many: Chip is pulled over for a traffic ticket, and when he reads the ticket, it is a note from Runciter, the dead man, not the cop. He is alarmed and shows it to the cop, who does not see anything out of the ordinary. Chip and the rest of the anti-telepaths come across messages scrawled in extremely unlikely places, and that's when the sinister stuff starts happening.
Soon you start questioning, "Is Runciter really alive, and the rest are all dead...or what?" And just when you think you've figured things out, at around the end of the book, PKD drops a bombshell in the last chapter that is, no other way to describe it, amazing. Dick plays with the reader's head so much in this book, and I can't recommend it enough.
Read it quickly, or in one sitting, and be prepared for a helluva lot of insanity, mystery, craziness, dark humor and mayhem. It's a great intro to PKD, and only the second PKD book I'd ever read. It's a masterwork of science fiction and plays with your head like no other novel that I have read thus far. You just have to read this book and I promise --you'll be hooked on Philip K Dick. 

God Emperor of Dune:

“Most men go through life unchallenged, except at the final moment.” 
I never thought it would be easy to serve God," she said. "I just didn't think it would be this hard.”  
“In all of my universe I have seen no law of nature, unchanging and inexorable. This universe presents only changing relationships which are somtimes seen as laws by short-lived awareness. These fleshy sensoria which we call self are ephemera withering in the blaze of infinity, fleetingly aware of temporary conditions which confine our activities and change as our activities change. If you must label the absolute, use its proper name: Temporary.” 
Many Sci-fi fans know and respect Frank Herbert's Dune as one of the greatest works of Science Fiction ever written. Star Wars ripped off of it shamelessly, and all "space opera" in its wake probably owes something to Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time. 
However, its sequels do not get much respect. Indeed, very few people seem to even be aware that Dune even has sequels. God Emperor is, in my opinion, almost on par with the original Dune, and it is definitely the best of the five other novels in the Dune Chronicles.
God Emperor of Dune is the fourth book of six in the Dune Chronicles. It focuses mainly on the God Emperor, Leto II, who has led humanity onto a Golden Path of peace and relative stagnancy. He rules from the desert planet, Arrakis, and is able to live for 4000 years to oversee the success of the Golden Path and humanity's survival because of his symbiosis with a sandworm, a creature of the desert planet Arrakis.
You many get great philosophical musings, along with some extremely original action scenes, throughout this somewhat melancholy novel.
The opening scene is exhilarating and tense: a wild, almost primordial chase scene that ratchets the tension up repeatedly to an almost unbearable level as one by one, Siona's friends fall victim to Leto's strange, mutated wolves. I also love the attack of the Face Dancers on Leto II, a scene that shows the ingenuity of Duncan Idaho and injects action into the plot forcefully and startlingly.
Overall, the plot of this novel mostly concerns a rebellion against Leto, whom some consider a Tyrant; others, the savior of humanity. Much of the book deals with Leto's explanations of life, the universe and everything to his servants and enemies alike --explanations that are ripe for detailed analysis. It was extremely interesting for me to read about --Dune fan and philosophy buff that I am. It might become tedious for some readers, but there is a decent amount of action in this book to balance out all this in-depth philosophizing.
Of the main characters, I especially liked Duncan Idaho, Anteac, and, of course Leto. Leto's character is up there in the ranks of SF as one of the most full and complex in my book. Love him or hate him, he's certainly a character that you get to know pretty well throughout the novel's length.
Personal opinion is always a factor, and I especially would stress that with this book, which some seem to adore, and others seem to hate. As for me, I cannot recommend this hidden gem enough. The sequels to Dune are all quite well-done, but I think this one especially stands out. If you like deep thinking, and "the big picture" of the human race, you'll love it. It's hard to believe that this novel, which is in the same series as one of the best SF novels of all time, is barely paid attention to in larger genre SF circles. But amongst most hard-core Dune fans, it remains beloved.
If you read it as an open-minded, philosophy-loving SF fan, I think you'll enjoy it. If not, at the very least, you will find one or two of the many detailed musings in this book to be interesting in some way. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

# 26 Snow Crash, # 24 The Martian Chronicles

Snow Crash:

“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.” 
“..this is just like life must be for about 99 percent of the people in the world. You're in this place. There's other people all around you, but they don't understand you and you don't understand them, but people do a lot of pointless babbling anyway. In order to stay alive, you have to spend all day every day doing stupid meaningless work. And the only way to get out of it is to quit, cut loose, take a flyer, and go off into the wicked world, where you will be swallowed up and never heard from again.”

First and foremost, I must say that I found Snow Crash to be an awesome, fun, ridiculously entertaining read. Neal Stephenson's novel struck me as a  fast-paced, cool, crazy, and foul-mouthed ride through the vulgar and insane near-future. It is such a blazingly "in-your-face" type of novel, that I could heap adjectives and superlatives upon it for quite a while, but I have probably done so enough already...
Snow Crash is located only a few years from the present, although the date is never specified, it is about a half a century or more removed from World War II, but no more than 100 years after it. The main character is a pizza-delivery guy/ swordfighter/ professional computer hacker who is interestingly given the name Hiro Protagonist. In the near future, we are told, all pizza delivery is openly controlled by the Mafia --headed by kingpin Uncle Enzo.
In this bizarre near-future scenario, Stephenson presents us with a reality in which large, independent countries no longer exist, and city-state-like franchises own land all over the world, each with their own constitution, laws, cops, etc. Everything is franchised and nothing is government owned --from different companies' jails competing for criminals detained in the city-states, to Judge Bob's Judicial System, which promises fair and cheap judgements, to the Meta-Cops (rent-a-cops basically). There's no doubt that is anti-consumerism cyberpunk at its best. A good portion of Snow Crash takes place in virtual reality, in a place called the Metaverse (quite popular in the mainstream world of Snow Crash).
When one of Hiro's friends, Da5id, has his brain somehow "fried" via a drug called Snow Crash he took in virtual reality, he must set out to find the culprit. Along the way, Hiro meets a young sidekick named Y.T (short for "Yours Truly") and, as the reader begins to realize from the opening scene onward, mayhem ensues in spades. I haven't even been able to touch on all the complexity and behind-the-scenes action that goes on in Snow Crash.
 There's stuff in here about Sumerian myths, the origin of language, computer programming, the Chinese, Japanese, Colombian, Italian, and Jamaican mobs, nuclear warfare, and terrible rap music. I can always open up Snow Crash, immediately find a scene I love (there are many) and start reading...the opening scene with its epic, over-the-top imagery and glorification of high-speed pizza delivery, the sword fight Hiro has in the Metaverse, the chase scene with Raven and the Crips, the escape of Y.T. from the Feds, the demolition of pirate Bruce Lee's boat, and numerous others.
This isn't exactly a book for the uptight, "Hard SF" fan who likes lots of technical minutiae explained. It's more about crazy chase scenes, vivid, obscenity-laced descriptions, and wacky philosophies. Because of this it can be quite polarizing --I loved every minute of it, but many SF fans complain that it is too ridiculous, too over-the-top, and even poorly written. Snow Crash certainly comes across as a "love-it or hate-it" type of affair. I might also add that it's also not depressing as most SF either, and that it has a fairly happy ending. I would suggest that anyone, SF fan or not, read this book; it's fun, fast-paced, and exciting!

The Martian Chronicles:

"There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time look like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, 100 billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded. And tonight-Tomas shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck-tonight you could almost taste time.” 
“It is good to renew one's wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.”
The Martian Chronicles is a collection of short stories about human voyages to Mars, by Ray Bradbury. When I started looking at this book, I thought that there would be a lot of exploding reactors, strange discoveries, calamitous emergencies, huge battles with Martians, and much mayhem and destruction described within its pages. However, this is not the case.
The Martian Chronicles is actually a very eerie and mystical work throughout it's entirety --and there are barely any battles. Another curveball comes with the fact that the Martians themselves are few and far between: in the first stories, they succinctly destroy the first manned missions to Mars by driving the men insane somehow. By the fifth story, it is learned that the Martians have been eradicated by a mysterious plague. I won't mention much more of the plot, but I liked this collection as a whole because of how each story worked with the others to create an intriguing, coherent future history with a unique tone throughout its entirety.
The collection was especially eerie, mystical, and powerful in certain stories, such as: "There Will Come Soft Rains"-a haunting tale with no dialogue, chronicling an automatic house going about daily business after a nuclear holocaust on Earth , "Ylla"- the story of an unhappy Martian wife who admires Earthmen from afar, only to have them telepathically killed by her jealous husband, "The Million Year Picnic"-a story of a happy family on Mars in the year 2026, which somehow is very disturbing in its enthusiasm, considering the tone of the previous stories in the collection, "Rocket Summer"-a great one page descriptive story of rockets setting off from Earth and disrupting the natural winter with their engine workings, and "Night Meeting"- a classic tale of perspective as a human and Martian meet without any one to back up either of them, to show how different the two are, and yet how they are alike in some ways. The best characters in the book were Spender, and Tomas Gomez, in my view. These two characters stuck out due to their fleshed-out processes of thought and comparative depth. Bradbury, while he is not a master of vivid action sequences, is quite skilled in producing poetically detailed characters.
This is definitely a book to check out for readers interested in the "Canon of SF"--it is vitally important in the history of science fiction. It's quite not up there with the absolute best, what I like to call the "first tier of science fiction"-- which includes Dune, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Star Maker, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of Light --but it's definitely a classic, if impersonal and eerie at times. 

#145: Dying Inside, #31: A Wrinkle in Time

Dying Inside:

“It was like that all the time, in those years: an endless trip, a gaudy voyage. But powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything goes. Everything dies.”
"The mind may think in Spanish or Basque or Hungarian or Finnish, but the soul thinks in a languageless language accessible to any prying sneaking freak who comes along to peer at its mysteries. "
"Winter is here. Sky and pavement form a seamless, inexorable band of gray. There will be snow soon. For some reason this neighborhood has gone without refuse pickups for three or four days, and bulging sacks of trash are heaped in front of every building, yet there is no odor of garbage in the air. Not even smells can flourish in these temperatures: the cold drains away every stink, every sign of organic reality. Only concrete triumphs here. Silence reigns. Scrawny black and grey cats, motionless, statues of themselves, peer out of alleys."
This novel is mainly concerned with the protagonist, David Selig, and his ordinary-yet-extraordinary life. Selig is a mind-reader, who, upon entering middle age, has found out that he is starting to lose his ability to read minds.
The novel jumps around his life, and  how his power has made him outcast, and an object of fear, even though less than five people in the world know about his ability. Selig, at middle-age, is a pathetic guy living in the slums of New York, in an apartment building filled with semi-literate Hispanics and blacks. He finds their minds pretty poor for plundering. His makes an extremely meager living, just enough for food and his rent, and sometimes less than that, by writing papers for Columbia students in exchange for money. Obviously for a man who reads minds, this is easier, as he can search through the minds of other students and professors to steal their work.
Throughout the novel, Robert Silverberg, the author, brutally takes Selig apart. He is friendless, and alone, somewhat sadistic and cruel, but you can't help feeling sorry for the bastard. His romantic relationships tend to turn horrid, and his life has never been even mediocre; he is a Columbia graduate, but lives in shitty slums, occasionally relying on his sister to get by. This power leaving him is a blessing and a curse, it is the only thing that has defined his life; it IS his life. Without it he is just a worthless degenerate.
I found Dying Inside to be an excellent book, and bleakly tragic- Selig is such a real character, and his guilt at his prying comes through occasionally, as well as his inability to use it to get more from life. My favorite scenes were the acid trip he takes through the mind of another person, and the entire ending, which is as tragic and depressing as hell- Selig is beaten down physically, psychologically, then mentally, and finally his powers rush out from him in one bang, contrasting with the decline detailed throughout the book, never to be reclaimed. The thing that has defined his life is gone, and now he is nothing.
This is an awesome novel, with Selig standing out as one of the top three best characterized people I've ever read in Science Ficiton. You should read this book, but be ready, it's probably one of the most bleak, hopeless, and depressing books I've ever read, which is the only reason why I wouldn't call it a must-read. If you're in for that, it is a must read and one of the best SF books I've ever read. 

A Wrinkle in Time:

They are very young. And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space."
"Oh," the thin beast said. "Aren't they lonely?”

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
“Don't try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition.” 
“If you aren't unhappy sometimes you don't know how to be happy.” 
I don't get why this book is classified as children's literature. I found it to be eerie and very disturbing at times. Perhaps it is classified as such because its protagonists, Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are all children. This simply is not children's literature in my view. The ending is happier than most endings in SF, but with the earth getting blown up, and the human race failing and dying, and robots taking over the world in lots of SF, that's not saying much.
A short overview of the novel is as follows: the children meet three strange, witch-like women named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, who are all actually beings that are billions of years old and apparently from another galaxy or universe. There isn't much hard science in this novel but several vaguely scientific explanations are given throughout the novel, thus distinguishing it from fantasy. Once such scientific explanation comes as the children somehow "wrinkle time", or "tesser" across space-time to a place were Meg and Charles' father is held prisoner, as he has been missing for quite a while when the novel opens.
This planet is a dystopian, clockwork-like place, in which all the people are like robots --all the kids walk out their identical front doors simultaneously every single day and bounce their balls once, and then simultaneously go back into their houses. All of daily life is conducted on this planet in the same mindless, controlled way, without any thought or feeling. And so, Meg, Calvin, and Charles go to rescue Meg and Charles' father with the help of the three old women, from a malevolent intelligence called It which controls this planet, and is keeping Meg and Charles' father under its control.
See what I mean? Not exactly kids fare... And when you get it the part in which you find out what It actually is, that is not exactly sunshine and rainbows either. There is a happy ending, though, and a potential for sequels by the novel's conclusion.
A Wrinkle in Time is a great Sci-fi read, despite the fact that it can be extremely weird and eerie. Even some of the good guys (i.e. Whatsit, Who, and especially Which) will leave the average reader a little disturbed. You should take a look if it sounds interesting, I'd recommend it --because at its core, it is actually a very good, well-executed science fiction story with many unique, clever elements. I just don't think it's your typical science fiction/fantasy book for kids.

Science Fiction Reviews

I'm going to be reviewing science fiction novels that I've read out of a list from the Internet of  the 160 or so best Science Fiction novels ever written. Each review will be a few sentences, and I'll try not to give away too much of the plot. I won't post the complete list yet, but each novel will be accompanied by its rank on the list.