Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#142: Downward to the Earth, #80: Burning Chrome

Downward to the Earth:

"Sometimes we are slow to understand the nature of others, and we give offense without knowing that we do so."
"The one who pushes the trigger can get hurt worse than his target..."
"Isn't the point obvious enough? Who was spiritually superior there? When you treat a rational autonomous creature as though he's a mere beast, what does that make you?"
Downward to the Earth is one of Robert Silverberg's lesser known works --a short, but poignant read. The novel gives us the tale of Edmund Gundersen, a former sector chief on the colony world of Belzagor. Gundersen served on Belzagor for around a decade, working for "The Company", mining and slowing stripping Belzagor of its natural resources.  Gundersen left only when Earth relinquished its imperialist hold on the planet.
Now, about a decade after relinquishment, Gundersen comes back to Belzagor to seek spiritual renewal, after the realization that he treated the sentient inhabitants of Belzagor, the nildoror, as if they were animals. In essence, he knows that he has treated these aliens as subhuman beasts of burden during his time on Belzagor (partially due to their submissive nature and close physical resemblance to Earth's elephants), and that he must somehow atone for his sins. As he arrives once again on Belzagor, he encounters the sulidoror --the mysterious bipedal race that are the only other sentient species on the planet-- as well as many nildoror (all of whom seem surprisingly nonchalant toward their former colonial overseer), and the remnants of the humans who decided to stay behind on Belzagor. He soon deicdes to travel across a good portion of the planet in order to undergo the nildoror ceremony of rebirth, and thus purify himself of his past sins; this journey makes up the bulk of this short novel. Silverberg describes Belzagor is a very interesting way: the colorful descriptions of the flora, fauna, and landscape are excellent, as one would expect from the author, one of the more inventive, literary, and technically-skilled wordsmiths in the science fiction field. But Belzagor is also given an air of familiarity, and at the same time, strangeness, as if Gundersen never truly knew the planet in his previous stay.
Indeed, the novel as a whole is quite mysterious, mystical and spiritually-oriented, rather than action-packed and in-your-face. The tribal, ecstatic, frenzied ritual dance that Gundersen joins the nildoror in, early in the novel, sets the tone for the book. The reader, like Gundersen, only has an inkling of what these nildoror (once considered simply to be funny-looking, semi-intelligent elephants) are really about. By my estimation, the novel was at its best in the more mystical scenes: the aforementioned nildoror dance was engrossing to read about, Cullen's story was equally intriguing, and the final scene, in which Gundersen reaches his destination, is easily the most brilliant writing in the book. This final scene reminded me of Stapledon's Star Maker, or the acid-trip scene from Silverberg's own Dying Inside in its metaphysical brilliance.
Downward to the Earth has much to say about the arrogance and presumption of colonialism (it is, Silverberg posits in his introduction, loosely based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness), but focuses more on the importance of spirituality over cold hard logic. Again, to deviate from the genre of science fiction, this sentiment reminded me of the closing lines of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's excellent parable, The Grand Inquisitor, in its powerful spiritual message. Although, to be certain, Silverberg certainly isn't endorsing any organized Earthly religion with the conclusion of this novel. I found this novel to be a thought-provoking read --it did slow down in some parts of Gundersen's journey, but Silverberg's descriptive acumen kept the plot, while sometimes meandering slightly, from ever becoming dull. The novel could probably be shortened by ten or twenty pages with minimal detriment to the story's power. I would recommend Downward to the Earth to any reader interested in intellectual, fulfilling, literary science fiction. Its dreamlike tone and emphasis on spirituality puts the reader in a pensive, even tranquil, state of mind. In this respect it is the polar opposite of Neal Stephenson's fast-paced, seething, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top novel, Snow Crash. I enjoyed both, however. As a Silverberg novel, I would rank this novel slightly below the phenomenal Dying Inside, but it is still certainly a worthwhile read and a mind and soul-stimulating addition to the canon of science fiction classics.

Burning Chrome:

"...most people's inner monsters are foolish things, ludicrous in the calm light of one's own consciousness."
" 'Hell of a world we live in, huh?  ...But it could be worse, huh?'
'That's right,' I said, 'or even worse, it could be perfect.' "

William Gibson's Burning Chrome is one of the few short-story collections on this list. And it's so good that excluding it from any sort of " The Best of Sci-Fi" list is criminal. Upon reading this collection, I am inclined to say that Gibson is the best pure, technical writer that Sci-Fi has ever known. His style is distinct --wonderfully mysterious yet brimming with ingenious methods of description. These ten cyberpunk stories gave me plenty of the great SF ideas that I crave, while also satisfying my English-major-brand thirst for great writing. In a way, Gibson's "high-tech, low-life" stories prove that he is this generation's more literary version of Philip K. Dick. I still prefer PKD (my favorite author) to Gibson, but this guy is most definitely one of the greatest SF authors alive right now.
 The individual stories in the collection varied in strength, but I quite enjoyed most of them. Johnny Mnemonic is a bizarre, fast-paced head-trip of a story, recounting a human memory bank's flight from a dangerous assassin. This one is dystopic, dark, and very cyberpunk. I enjoyed it, although it was often disorienting. In fact, Johnny Mnemonic reminded me a lot of my favorite cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. The Gernsback Continuum is an incredibly unique story that I found to be extremely interesting --although its quirky style may not appeal to everyone. It is a Brave New World-esque commentary on the 1930s vision of the future as an idyllic setting. It's set in the present day, but the story's conclusion presents the reader with food for thought in a way that is very science fiction-y. Fragments of a Hologram Rose was one of the least memorable stories in the collection --it's a mysterious, melancholy take on virtual reality. It's also very short, vague, and written in a dream-like tone. We get a few hints of a dystopia here too, with mentions of guerrilla warfare, acid rain, and black market towns. The plot is fluid and ambiguous, to say the least. The Belonging Kind is an extremely well-written depiction of social anxiety and awkwardness. It's strange and thought-provoking, asking the question, "Does easy sociability signal a loss of humanity?" and "Does being human mean being awkward?" It's blackly humorous for sure, and a must-read for anyone who is not quite a social butterfly. From the beginning of the story, I related with Coretti like few other characters in literature. Hinterlands is an eerie, more space-opera-esque SF tale that bears the trademark Gibson mystery and emotion. Once again, extremely well-written, and one of the best stories in the collection.
 Red Star, Winter Orbit was my least favorite story in Burning Chrome. This story is a weird, sad, space opera that felt dated to me (it revolves around an old Soviet Union space station). The plot is decent, but it failed to excite and present innovative ideas in quite the way that Gibson usually does. New Rose Hotel may be my favorite story in this collection. It's vague, but brilliantly so. All I can tell you is that it's about dueling biotech companies, and you'll have to figure out the rest yourself. The language and emotion is top-notch, giving this story a serious "wow-factor" that outpaces any SF short story I have read. This one deserves multiple re-readings. The Winter Market features more cyberpunk ideas that entertain and enthrall. It's fascinating, with perhaps the best "SF concept" of the book --downloading dreams onto sensory records and selling them! Gibson also may be prescient in this story as well, as he tells us of a crippled girl who downloads her entire personality onto a computer system --according to futurists like Ray Kurzweil, this could be possible in the near future. Dogfight was a more "slice-of-life" tale about a wandering loser who gets really good at a futuristic game. Dogfight starts off lighter than most Gibson stories, but gets typically dark and meaningful by its conclusion. Probably one of the easiest reads here, and of average quality when compared to the collection as a whole. 
Finally, the titular story delivers in spades --it's a beautiful, melancholy story about up-and-coming computer hackers. Excellent, concise, and once again, vintage Gibson. The risqué idea of The House of Blue Lights was appreciated by this reader as well. Truly an exemplary collection from one of the best authors that science fiction has to offer!