Sunday, April 22, 2012

#153: Mockingbird, #91: The Fountains of Paradise


“Reading is the subtle and thorough sharing of the ideas and feelings by underhanded means. It is a gross invasion of Privacy and a direct violation of the Constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Age. The Teaching of Reading is equally a crime against Privacy and Personhood. One to five years on each count.”
"Don't ask. Relax."
"Distant and clear in the pale dawn it stood, higher than anything else outside: the Empire State Building, the high grave marker for the city of New York..."
Walter Tevis's Mockingbird is a little-known masterwork of science fiction that deserves a place amongst the classics of the genre. First, let me warn you: as with most dystopian science fiction, Mockingbird is not a fun, easy-going read.
It is bleak, dreary, and depressing, chronicling a future in which the human population of Earth has decreased to about 19 million individuals. Drugs and Rules of Privacy are the mainstays of what little civilization is left, and things like conversation and family life are but distant memories. Reading, too, has vanished from human life. The world of Mockingbird is somewhat like a combination of the drugged-out Brave New World, the depressing totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the society which fears real learning, emotion, and books, and maintains a worshipful attitude towards wall-sized televisions in Fahrenheit 451, and finally, the robot-run stagnant society of the short story, "The Evitable Conflict", from I, Robot.
Mockingbird is certainly a chilling novel, made all the more bleak and hauntingly real by its very realistic extrapolation of current societal norms: laziness, drug-abuse, escape from reality, and focus on inner pleasure. In the world of Mockingbird, robots run everything,  because humans no longer have the drive or capacity to work themselves. Humankind has been reliant on robots for so long that they are incapable of doing much else besides watching, ingesting soporific pills (which consequently inhibit fertility, slowly killing off the human race), and smoking marijuana. In this bleak, child-less world, lives the most intelligent robot ever created, Robert Spofforth. He is essentially running New York City, in addition to serving as the dean of NYU, an institution that does not resemble a modern institute of learning in any way. Spofforth wishes to commit suicide, but his programming will not allow him.
The other two central characters are humans named Paul Bentley, a man who learns to read, and who becomes the main protagonist of the story, and Mary Lou, a woman who he falls in love with. Mockingbird contains many powerful scenes in its length as it chronicles Mary Lou and Bentley's falling in love, Spofforth's jealousy at their relationship, and Paul's exile and return from prison. The robots in this novel are characterized excellently, in a chillingly dull and manufactured way. The robot children at the zoo in which Mary Lou lives are especially creepy. The toaster factory scene is also great, an example of how pathetic the world of Mockingbird has truly become. Ironically, Spofforth seems to exhibit more human emotion than any human in the novel, Bentley and Mary Lou excepted. This is due to the fact that his brain is based on that of a man who was once real; a rather melancholy, but brilliant man.
The plot is mostly a tale of Bentley's journey through life, as he moves to New York, is Detected by Spofforth, sent to jail, escapes, and meets a group of religious puritans who live in what appears to be a fallout shelter. Mockingbird maintains its bleak and dreary tone throughout the majority of its length, until a small tinge of hope is given at the end, ironically this tinge of hope includes a suicide, which is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read in science fiction.
The bottom line is, Mockingbird is a bleak masterwork of dystopian literature that is perhaps more accurate than any other speculative fiction that I've read so far. it certainly deserves more notoriety than it is given. This hidden gem is filled with power and tragedy, and it has some serious things to say about the human condition. It is one of the most observant and powerful works of science fiction in terms of what it has to say about humanity as a whole, and what the future will be like if we continue to keep to ourselves, enhance our lives with drugs, and begin to rely on mechanical entities to preserve our race. Highly recommended.

The Fountains of Paradise:

"Through long and bitter experience, Rajasinghe had learned never to trust first impressions, but also never to ignore them."
"Since women are better at producing babies, presumably Nature has given men some talent to compensate. But for the moment I can’t think of it"
"I am unable to distinguish clearly between your religious ceremonies and apparently identical behavior at the sporting and cultural functions you have transmitted to me."
"The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues."

"The fates could not possibly be so malevolent, now that he had only a few hundred meters to go.
He was whistling in the dark, of course. How many aircraft had crashed at the very edge of the runway, after safely crossing an ocean? How many times had machines or muscles failed when there were only millimeters to go? Every possible piece of luck, bad as well as good, happened to somebody, somewhere. He had no right to expect any special treatment."

The Fountains of Paradise is undoubtedly a classic of science fiction, often cited as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's best works. I found Fountains to be quite enjoyable; it's not ultra-revolutionary or mind-bending, it is simply pure, smart science fiction -- Golden-Age sci-fi ideals blended together with Clarke's considerable (and often pioneering) scientific knowledge to back them up. The Fountains of Paradise is a typical science fiction story through and through (although that cannot be said for many books of this diverse genre!), much like Asimov's Foundation Trilogy or Crichton's Jurassic Park.
Overall,  The Fountains of Paradise is light, fun, and surprisingly humorous in sections, and the reader gets caught up in the enthusiasm for discovery, engineering and science that Clarke creates, mostly through the main character: a likable engineer with big goals named Vannevar Morgan. Morgan is easy to sympathize with from the beginning. He embarks on a quest to build a "space elevator", which would link Earth to space, thus making for easier space travel. Most of the novel is centered around Morgan's quest to build this gigantic Orbital Tower, on the top of a mountain that an ancient order of monks believes to be sacred. Throughout this novel, science clashes with religion and mysticism and mystery, all of which happen to be in decline in the 22nd century of Clarke's imagined Earth. Early passages of the novel mention an ancient king, Kalidasa, who inhabited Taprobane, the island on which the Tower is to be built, lending a sort of mythic quality to the novel's introduction.
However, Clarke shows science and human ingenuity taking precedent over the mysticism and religion of the past as Morgan eventually triumphs over the ancient order of monks who refuse to vacant their mountain-top monastery so he can build his Orbital Tower. The quotations spread before large segments of the novel are often anti-religious, but were some of the most interesting parts of the novel to me. Clarke's insight into the nature of religion and its role in humanity becomes a huge part of this novel, although it is not always in the foreground of the plot.
As to be expected with Clarke's work, there is more than a tinge of Hard SF in certain sections of this novel, mostly explaining why there are certain problems to be avoided and contained in the Tower's construction, but these explanations did not become too long-winded, complicated, or unnecessary by my judgement. Clarke also shows off his trademarked accurate foresight into the future in this novel, predicting the Internet with omnipresent "consoles" that can access any source of information in the world. Yet another layer that Clarke adds to the novel is mankind's first contact with another intelligent species, via a "Starglider" communications device sent out by an unknown alien race, which is referenced several times and becomes important in an admittedly bizarre and unexpected epilogue.
All in all, this novel made me appreciate Clarke's vast knowledge of science even more than I had previously. Coupled with his insight and philosophy on religion and mankind's future, Clarke's scientific knowledge makes for an intellectual reading experience to say the least. This novel certainly deserves its status as a classic of science fiction.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#121: Martian Time Slip, #30: Lord of Light

Martian Time-Slip:

“I'm not much but I'm all I have.” 
"Insanity - to have to construct a picture of one's life, by making inquiries of others."
" 'It is a massive problem for the schizophrenic to relate to the school,' Glaub said. 'The schizophrenic, such as yourself, very often deals with people through their unconscious. The teaching machines, of course, have no shadow personalities; what they are is all on the surface. Since the schizophrenic is accustomed constantly to ignore the surface and look beneath --he draws a blank. He is simply unable to understand them.' "
"Death itself has such authority. A transformation as awesome as life itself, and so much harder for us to understand." 
Martian Time-Slip is another of Philip K. Dick's top-notch, time-twisting, mind-bending SF novels, in the same class as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly. The setting for Martian Time-Slip is mostly a sparsely settled Mars, in the near future. As with most PKD novels, the Solar System has just begun to be colonized, but Earth is still the epicenter of humanity for the time being. Surprisingly, Time-Slip doesn't deal with altered states of reality as caused by hallucinogenic drugs, as in many of Dick's other works, such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Now Wait For Last Year.
As the eerie strangeness that can only come from PKD creeps into the novel very soon after the typical, Golden-Age SF-esque introduction, it becomes evident that this aura of strangeness has been formed by more mysterious powers and circumstances than the simple usage of psychedelic drugs. The plot of Martian Time-Slip mainly concerns three characters: protagonist Jack Bohlen, a member of the Water Worker's Union, the Union's oppressive and selfish leader Arnie Kott, and Manfred Steiner, an "anomalous", autistic child who experiences time in a strange way, different from other humans, and can apparently only utter one word of gibberish: "Gubble". Many forces come crashing into play, with Jack Bohlen playing the role of the typical everyman Dick protagonist fighting against strange, supernatural forces completely beyond his control. The plot revolves around a theoretical apartment complex in the bleak, uninhabited Franklin D. Roosevelt Mountains of Mars; these apartments are cryptically known as AM-WEB by Manfred. It soon becomes apparent that Manfred sees the future, and knows that the apartment complex will not end up as the upper-class resort-type get-away it is supposed to be, rather, it will become a rotted out hellhole for mentally "anomalous" people such as himself.
Arnie Kott attempts to take advantage of Manfred's strange perception of time, in order to benefit himself financially, Jack Bohlen attempts to do what is right, his father, Leo scrambles to buy land in the FDR Mountains, and the mysterious Bleekmen, aboriginals of Mars similar genetically to Australian aborigines of Earth, hover beyond the shadows --mysterious, but vitally important. The novel retains an eerie, other-worldly feel about it, especially in the somewhat disturbing climax at Dirty Knobby, in the FDR Mountains.
And if you're looking for classic PKD mind-bending brilliance, look no further than the scenes in which Arnie Kott repeatedly experiences the events of a few hours over and over again; it will screw with your mind as much as it screws with his. Martian Time-Slip is an excellent piece of the PKD canon, and I would recommend it to beginner PKD-readers, as it does not quit reach the level of mind-fracturing madness as some of his later work does.
The tone of this book is the quality that sticks with the reader most after its completion: an ethereal, strange aura unlike any other novel, by Dick or otherwise, that I have read. Like all of Philip K. Dick's other top-notch works that I have read so far, this haunting, alien read is highly recommended to any Sci-Fi enthusiast.

Lord of Light:

“No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words.” 
“Then the one called Raltariki is really a demon?" asked Tak.
"Yes--and no," said Yama, "If by 'demon' you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape--then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect."
"Oh? And what may that be?"
"It is not a supernatural creature."
"But it is all those other things?"
"Then I fail to see what difference it makes whether it be supernatural or not--so long as it is malefic, possesses great powers and life span and has the ability to change its shape at will."
"Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy--it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable.”  

“It would be nice if there were some one thing constant and unchanging in the universe. If there is such a thing, then it is a thing which would have to be stronger than love, and it is a thing which I do not know.” 
I'll start off my review of Roger Zelazny's masterwork of Science Fiction, Lord of Light, with this  quote from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". This quote certainly applies to the Hindu "gods" of Lord of Light, a hybrid work of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, in which science has advanced enough so that men can reincarnate their souls into new bodies repeatedly without ever having to taste of "the real death". In addition, these people have also genetically altered themselves enough with advances in neuroscience and hypnosis so they can wield god-like Attributes: stares that can kill a person, or the power to control and bind electromagnetic currents.
The general plot of the novel is as follows: A group of humans on board a spaceship called the Star of India left Earth, or Urath as it is often referred to, as it was in its death throes, and have colonized a new planet, peopling it with their own descendants, whom they rule over, as Hindu gods, with supernatural Attributes and all. Their ancestors remain ignorant as to the truth about their world, and the Hindu gods suppress any technology that might eventually come in the way of their ancestors worship of them, whether it be the printing press, bifocals, or toilets with running water.
Eventually, one of the original crew members from the Star of India (mentioned by name only once in the novel, known as Mahasamatman, or simply, Sam, begins spreading Buddhist teachings across the land, in direct opposition to the gods of the Hindu pantheon, who rule from the Celestial City of "Heaven", a gigantic dome located near the pole of the world. Sam is in favor of Accelerationism, a philosophy that is all about letting the inhabitants of this planet out of the dark, and letting them discover technology, rather them letting them be continuously oppressed by their technologically gifted ancestors.
There are impressive battle scenes between the gods, zombies, humans, and demons, incredibly interesting philosophical discourses, Christianity is even thrown into the mix towards the end. In addition, the original inhabitants of the planet, known as Rakasha, or demons, after the Hindu tradition, make frequent appearances: they are creatures of pure energy who can take on any physical form, and are almost as powerful as the technologically advanced gods. They were originally sealed underneath a mountain when the "gods" first settled on the planet, but they are loosed throughout the course of the novel, and wreak much havoc. I found several parallels between this novel and another classic of SF: A Canticle of Leibowitz: in both, religion plays a huge role in the world, as rediscoveries must be made in the fields of science and thought, as humanity in general must start over again.
I must say that I found the premise of Lord of Light one of the most original and creative premises that I have ever entered in my reading of Science Fiction. Zelazny's action-packed tale of a rebel god/man who poses as Buddha, releases demons to do his bidding, and controls his soul when it is lacking of a body all by the wonders of science, makes for an epic you won't be able to put down. It is both an exciting and original premise, and a masterfully executed story. The characters of Mahasamatman, Yama, Taraka, Rild, and Nirritti the Black One were all excellently realized and thought-provoking to me particularly.
There is so much going on in Lord of Light that I cannot begin to summarize it here, but suffice to say, that it is more than deserving of its reputation as a masterpiece of Science Fiction. Its one of the most action-packed, fascinating SF books I've ever read, and its certainly up there with the very best of the genre. You'll also probably get interested in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy after having finished this novel. Don't miss this book, I'd rank it among the most deftly executed Science Fiction stories of all time.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

#16: Rendezvous with Rama, #48: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Rendezvous with Rama:

“If such a thing had happened once, it must surely have happened many times in this galaxy of a hundred billion suns.” 
“Even by the twenty-second century, no way had yet been discovered of keeping elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions. Indeed, it was doubted if the problem ever would be solved.” 
“He had a suspicion of plausible answers; they were so often wrong.” 
“Training was one thing, reality another, and no one could be sure that the ancient human instincts of self-preservation would not take over in an emergency.” 
Rendezvous With Rama is regarded as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's masterpieces simply because of the fertile imagination he exhibits in this work. Rendezvous is essentially a novel focused on what it would mean to explore something completely unknown and alien. Characterization and plot become secondary in Rendezvous with Rama, in which the main character truly is Rama, the massive, cylindrical object found floating through the solar system.
The novel details how a team of Earth astronauts explore Rama, finding many strange wonders inside, but no definitive answers as to what kind of alien form of life actually made this gigantic spacecraft, or what it was made for. Inside the giant cylinder, the astronauts find what is essentially an enclosed ecosystem, with rivers, grass, natural landscapes, and "biots", a mysterious type of biological robot--formed out of organic material, but serving a robotic purpose, apparently the upkeeping of Rama.
This is a novel shrouded in mystery and infused with the excitement of the exploration of the unknown. In general, Rendezvous with Rama is a funner, easier read than most hard SF. I found it more enjoyable as a reader with little scientific background --a reader more concerned with the ideas of Science Fiction, than the actual science of it -- than Larry's Niven's Ringworld. This may be due to the fact that Clarke does not harp on technical details too much; rather, he masterfully conveys the sense of wonder, mystery, and the starkly alien in an engaging, readable way.
However, Clarke's novel still remains a masterwork of hard SF to this day. Its influence on real-world science is apparent in the modern world as well. Just take a look at the January 2013 issue of National Geographic for an artist's rendition of a giant generation ship that could be built in the far future to take masses of humanity to distant stars. Looks a lot like the vast cylinder of Rama, no? Indeed, Clarke's novels are always full of big, realistic, scientific ideas. You'd expect nothing less from the man who gave us the idea of the man-made satellite.
A final statement on the importance of humanity is made at the novel's conclusion when Rama absorbs fuel from our sun and blasts back off into the cosmos--and the astronauts' impact has apparently gone unfelt by the massive alien artifact. The Ramans apparently could not care less about humanity: their artifact takes its fuel and blasts off without a second thought. Clarke's novel concludes soon after, with more questions arising, and very few answered...much the way science and discovery goes in real life. The last sentence of the novel is a cryptic statement suggesting the sequels that came soon after this acknowledged masterwork of science fiction: The Ramans do everything in threes...
Although Rendezvous with Rama is not a deeply philosophical work attempting to delve into the psyche of humankind (it is in fact quite the opposite, as mankind is relegated to the status of unimportant observer), it is a deeply interesting, creative, imaginative adventure story, and a cornerstone work of science fiction. Try reading Rendezvous after a dystopian, dark, bleak work of SF (and there are many...), and you'll find its infectious enthusiasm for exploration a joy to behold.

A Canticle For Leibowitz:

You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” 
“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”
“Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry. But that is how I see it.” 
“Listen, my dear Cors, why don't you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn't allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” 

A Canticle For Leibowitz is, in my view, one of the greatest Science Fiction novels ever written. This post-apocalyptic tale of the monks of the Order of Saint Isaac Leibowitz, retains its power upon successive readings, and can hold its own when compared with masterworks of SF such as Dune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Star Maker, or the Foundation Trilogy.
The novel is told in three parts, split up over hundreds of years, documenting the monks and their attempts to preserve the lost arts of science, technology, and philosophy, after the great Flame Deluge, a great nuclear war that almost ended all life on Earth. The other inhabitants of Earth are lost in ignorance, barbarism and darkness, making war and acting savagely while the monks work to rediscover science and experience pioneering breakthroughs in the field.
In the first part, Fiat Homo, or "Let there be man", Brother Francis, a young monk of the order, discovers some sacred documents of Saint Leibowitz, including a normal, everyday grocery shopping list, which the monks soon come to revere. This is just one touch of the blackly humorous tone that Miller flirts with throughout the novel. Brother Francis's discovery of these documents is aided by a strange pilgrim, who shows up in each of the three sections of the novel, the only constant character in this centuries-spanning work.
In the next section, Fiat Lux, or "Let there be light", the monks discover and begin to work with electricity, and attempt to deal with barbarian outsiders such as Hannegan II of Texarkana, a warlord who poses a threat to the lone beacon of civilization left on Earth, the monks of Saint Leibowitz.
 In the final novella-length section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, or "Let thy will be done", Earth has once again cyclically developed into what it was right before the Flame Deluge, with spaceships, cameras, and advanced nuclear weaponry once again present in society. It is in this section that the Abbot Zerchi gives his famous speech on the evil of euthanasia. He formulates this justifiably famous speech into in a parable that he tells to a woman about to choose to kill herself and her daughter. The parable is about a cat he once killed to "put it out of its misery", and his powerful experience in committing such an act. This speech is just one of the reasons that the last few chapters of Canticle are as powerful as any group of scenes I've ever encountered in Science Fiction: they form a tragic, bleak vision that is awe-inspiring to behold. There is no doubt that Miller is a master author, and these concluding scenes prove the power of his writing. As the story ends, still the monks of Saint Leibowitz hold strong, eventually taking a spaceship into the cosmos for the fear that history might soon repeat itself, as it has apparently begun to.
A Canticle For Leibowitz is perhaps the first book that I would recommend to a person who is beginning to read in the genre of SF, because it shows that genre Science Fiction can be powerful and well-written enough to be considered true "literature". It is probably the best example of a bridge between SF and "serious Literature", because it hasn't been claimed by the serious literature crowd in the same way works such as Nineteen Eight-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and Fahrenheit 451 have. It is still Science Fiction and it is still undeniably brilliant. This is a powerful, extremely imaginative, thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone. It's one of the very best that science fiction has to offer.