Wednesday, June 25, 2014

#18: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, #134: Jem

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

"Revolution is an art that I pursue rather than a goal I expect to achieve."
"...while we are staking our lives, we are old enough to know it. For that, one should have an emotional grasp of death. Children seldom are able to realize that death will come to them personally. One might define adulthood as the age at which a person learns that he must die... and accepts his sentence undismayed."
"Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws-- always for the other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: 'Please pass this so that I won't be able to do something I know I should stop.' Nyet, tovarischchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them 'for their own good' --not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it."
"There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him."
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, along with Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, is often regarded as one of Robert A. Heinlein's seminal masterpieces. It's a heavily political work, just like Starship Troopers, and it's no surprise that such a work aroused much debate in its time, especially considering it was written in the 1960s. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a complex novel on many levels, so bear this in mind as I go over my outline of the plot; there's quite a bit I don't have room for! By about halfway through the novel, I concluded that it was much more layered and richer than Starship Troopers, the only other Heinlein that I've read up to this point.
That being said, I actually may have enjoyed Troopers a slight bit more, because The Moon is a Harsh Mistress certainly has its flaws. One that became grating to me, and which will be vexing to fellow grammarians, is the narrative style. At the novel's opening, we are introduced to Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis, who narrates the entire novel in a weird dialect that I can only describe as Anglo-Russian with bad grammar. You get used to it as the novel progresses, but at times I found myself reading sentences over and over in order to decipher them. It was slightly disorienting and even annoying at points, but it certainly created a unique tone for Manuel, and perhaps made him more relatable as a character. Manuel, a computer technician, lives on Luna (the Earth's moon), a penal colony controlled by the Federated Nations of Earth. He is a free man like many other lunar inhabitants, but he continues to live on Luna because he cannot survive for long in Earth's gravity, having been born in Luna. After discovering the secret sentience of the main control computer on Luna, Mycroft a.k.a Mike, Manuel becomes more and more enthusiastic about joining a brewing rebellion against the Lunar Authority (run by the Federated Nations). He is joined by the wise scholar, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, and the fiery dissident Wyoming Knott, as well as many other "Loonies".
The revolution begins with minor acts in secrecy, and eventually escalates into full-war with the Lunar Authority and the Federated Nations. Mycroft, a well-done character with a good deal of complexity, is invaluable to the revolution, spurring communications in its early stages and organizing weaponry in its later stages. As he is prone to do, Heinlein infuses this novel with intelligence and political discourse --just as Starship Troopers addressed militarism, duty, corporal punishment and conservative values, so does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deal with revolution, freedom, and libertarian values. I suspect that the Professor is speaking as the mouthpiece of Heinlein in many cases --he often comes across as the most intelligent man in the novel . De la Paz espouses an intriguing political philosophy that he calls, "rational anarchism", a sort of extreme form of libertarianism that even I (a moderate libertarian) found to be unsustainable and a bit ridiculous. However, I appreciated the complexity and thought that Heinlein put behind his descriptions of this political philosophy. In addition to politics, Heinlein also does diplomatic intrigue well, in Prof and Manuel's mission to Earth we get an adequately muddled sense of Earth's various allegiances and diplomatic inconsistencies.
All things considered, I enjoyed this novel's ideas (line marriages were a unique idea for sure!) and its richly layered plot. Despite a few complaints (occasional annoyance with bad grammar and the downplaying of Luna's military capability until the very end), I felt that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deserves its status as an SF classic, and I suspect that it has potential to be even better on second, and third readings.


"One might try to describe him to you by saying that Sharn-igon was politically conservative, deeply moral, and fundamentally honest. One might try to elicit your sympathy by saying that he (like who that you know?) was screaming inside with unhealed pain. But would you see that? Or would you glance and gasp and pull back your finger in loathing and say: Christ, fellow! That's no person. It's an alien creature! It lives (lived? will live?) a thousand light years away, on a planet that circles a star I have never seen! And besides, it looks creepy. If I had to say what it looked like, giving it the best break I could, I would have to say that it looked like half of a partly squashed crab. And, of course, you would be right..."
"It is as though killing has become an end in itself. It no longer matters who is killed or for what possible gain the killing is done. Only the killing itself matters."
Frederik Pohl's Jem gave me the impression several times, especially in its final third, of being one of the grimmest, most pessimistic science fiction novels I have ever read. Mind you, I have read and reviewed a multitude of bleak tales, from 1984, to VALIS, to Mockingbird. And, of course, that does not necessarily mean it isn't a worthwhile read --I loved all three of the aforementioned novels. However, I don't think that Jem quite measures up to the lofty standards of those three depressing, but powerful works.
Jem is a reasonably fast-paced yarn about humankind's first contact with sentient aliens, and the mission from Earth to establish permanent colonies on their home planet, first christened Klong, and later renamed Jem. In the future Earth scenario that Pohl has established here, there are three power "blocs" on Earth: nations that produced fuel (Saudi Arabia, the U.K, Venezuela...) make up the Fuel Bloc, nations that export food (the U.S, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria...) constitute the Food Bloc, and the populous, leftover nations (Pakistan, China...) make up the People Bloc. The three blocs struggle to share and balance their power on Earth and as the situation on Jem heats up, they begin to jockey for supremacy there too. Pohl is enthusiastic about making this novel, although science fiction, quite realistic in its depiction of government. Thus, each of the three blocs experience in-fighting, tangles with red tape, and a hefty portion of political grand-standing from their leaders. Pohl shows a shrewd understanding of the obfuscations and word-games that politicians make into their daily bread and butter, and nothing is ever clear-cut (as is so common in novels and so rare in the real world).
The novel's main protagonist, the American scholar Danny Dalehouse, goes on the Food Bloc's first ship to Jem with the specific purpose of interacting with the native sentients of the planet. He has the most luck with the whimsical, singing, floating balloonist aliens, while the People Bloc aligns with the fearsome, crab-like Krinpit, and the Fuel Bloc aligns with the subterranean Creepies.
Although Jem is supposed to represent a utopian, new beginning for a race that could never quite get along on planet Earth, of course the three expeditions begin to skirmish soon after they arrive. And, in a clear metaphor for the corruption of Native American tribes by European settlers, they arm their respective sentient and use them as grunts for intelligence and warfare. Dalehouse and his semi-love interest, Margie Menninger, are reasonably likable characters, but many others, specifically Ahmed Dulla and Ana Dimitrova, were irritating and whiny in my view. Realistically unlikeable characters seem to signify another of Pohl's attempts to make this novel very true to real life, as did a touch of dramatic irony here and there (Sharn-igon's "rescue" of Margie stood out in this respect). Pohl's brand of realism was a nice touch, but I tend to look for three things in SF: mind-blowing ideas, kaleidoscopic prose, and a riveting story. The novel's ideas were quite good, but the plot left holes in certain periods of time that I wanted to hear about. In addition, Pohl's descriptive acumen felt strong at times, but lacking quite a bit of the time as well. His dialogue tended to shift between believable and stilted, especially drifting towards the latter in the beginning. And I must add that the scenes on Earth weren't nearly as interest-holding as those on the planet Jem.
One such episode on Jem that was among the best SF scenes I have ever read was the introduction of Sharn-igon --it's truly excellent work on the idea of perspective. Other enjoyable sequences occur in the faster-paced second half of the novel, including the incredibly grim ending sequence, which hints at a highly negative, but frighteningly realistic view of humanity in general. Gruesome deaths and hopeless situations abound...and then Pohl weirdly tries to shift the mood with a socialist, utopian, "many years later" type of final chapter. I'll admit, I didn't quite appreciate this final chapter.
My final verdict on Jem is this: it's a solid, enjoyable story with some excellent ideas. But I'm not sure I can to call it a science fiction masterpiece.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

#160: Alas, Babylon, #117: Bring the Jubilee

Alas, Babylon:

"Nations are like people. When they grow old and rich and fat they get conservative. They exhaust their energy trying to keep things the way they are --and that's against nature."
"Censorship and thought control can exist only in secrecy and darkness."
"It takes two to make a peace but only one to make war."
Written during the fervor and hysteria of the Cold War period, Alas, Babylon makes for fascinating reading while brilliantly articulating the fear and uncertainty of an entire era. Although it may have been even more poignant when read at the height of Soviet Union-American tension during the early 1960s, it remains eye-opening reading in the post(?)-nuclear age. What makes Alas, Babylon so good is its realism. Concerning science fiction, this is one of the most realistic pieces you'll find out there.
 The novel opens with a great account of small town life in Fort Repose, Florida. We are introduced to an array of characters who are all reasonably well fleshed out, although some of them tilt towards the stereotypical at times. We have Florence Wechek --the aging, unmarried busybody, Randy Bragg --the ex-military man and calm voice in crisis, Dan Gunn --the self-sacrificing doctor, the Henrys --a hard-working black family, and a multitude of other engaging minor characters. As a situation between the U.S and the Soviet Union becomes more and more tense, Randy Bragg's military-insider brother, Mark, warns him of an impending nuclear holocaust. After the situation erupts into a full-fledged nuclear war, America's major cities are left devastated, and Fort Repose is one the few towns in America left relatively untouched.
Alas, Babylon is mainly concerned with Randy and his companions' struggles as they battle starvation, radiation, sickness, lawlessness, and chaos in Fort Repose post-nuclear apocalypse. One of the novel's strong-points is the frantic, frighteningly realistic tone it adopts in the immediate aftermath of the first explosion. The varying reactions to the nuclear holocaust are quite well-done: we witness denial, fear, greed, anger, extreme depression, and madness set in to differing degrees across the formerly quiet Florida town. Frank's descriptive language has a unique, creative feel to it that is quite effective in solidifying memorable scenes as well; he can do action (the tense battle with the highwaymen), romance (Randy and Lib McGovern's night on the dock), and small-town drama (the novel's opening scene) all with zest. In fact, I got the sense, while reading Alas, Babylon, that it would make an excellent movie, with its relatable cast of characters and Hollywood-ready plot lines.
Although the plot was well-done and kept me turning the pages (especially the last hundred or so), I think that Alas, Babylon's underlying message will stick with me long after I have forgotten the minor characters and details of the plot. Upon finishing this novel, I was struck by an uplifting message of hope, bolstered by the twin pillars of hard work and perseverance, that is summoned by the story's closing scenes. Just because it's a post-apocalyptic novel doesn't mean it has to be dreary and morose! Frank seems to recognize this, and instead leaves his readers with a bit more optimism than other sections of the story might have provoked. I might add that while Randy Bragg was my favorite character, each main townsperson had some unique aspect of likability that made the novel more genuine and complex.
Although Alas, Babylon did not feel all that "science fictiony", I quite enjoyed it nonetheless. It is a classic of the genre, and I would especially recommend it to fans of post-apocalyptic literature or those who enjoy rich depictions of realistic characters and small-town life.

Bring the Jubilee:

"For the believer skepticism is essential. How else is he to know false gods from true except by doubting both?"
"It would be very nice if there were no drawbacks ever attached to the virtuous choice. Then the only ones who would elect to do wrong would be those of twisted minds, the perverse, the insane. Who would prefer the devious course if the straight one were just as easy? No, no, my dear Hodge; one cannot escape the responsibility for his choice simply because the other way means inconvenience or hardships or tribulation."
"We are too impressed with the pattern revealed to us --or which we think has been revealed to us --to remember that for the participants history is a haphazard affair, apparently aimless, produced by human beings whose concern is essentially with the trivial and irrelevant. The historian is always conscious of destiny. The participants rarely --or mistakenly."
Bring the Jubilee tends to be cited as one of the best alternate history novels ever written, along with The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, and Lest Darkness Fall. Despite this fact, I feel obliged to regard it as somewhat of a hidden gem; you won't see it in many bookstores, or, astonishingly, on very many "Best of SF" lists. As I delved further and further into this excellent novel, the level of injustice associated with these two facts increased more and more.
Bring the Jubilee truly is among the best that science fiction has to offer, and I would even go so far as to say that it is slightly superior to Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Indeed, it is the best work of alternate history that I have read so far. Ward Moore's writing is technically excellent, clear, and filled with a remarkable, worldly, observant type of wisdom that one would expect from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, not a lesser-known science fiction writer.
The novel is essentially the autobiography of Hodge Backmaker, a very relatable, likable young man who makes his way through the poverty-stricken villages and slums of the United States of America in search of a great education in history. The years of his life in focus are the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, from his teenage life, to his maturation into a young man. The alternate history twist here in that the North lost the Civil War --and at the time period the novel is set in, the Confederate States have flourished, becoming a major world power, while the U.S.A has regressed into an insignificant, mostly uneducated backwater of a country, boasting only two reasonably modern cities: New York and Brooklyn. Hodge leaves his petty, impoverished existence in rural upstate New York to make something of himself in New York City. He runs into trouble of various degrees during his several years there, gaining wisdom from his experience and eventually joining a community of scholars in Pennsylvania to finally pursue his career as an historian.
Up until this point, Bring the Jubilee simply reads like an altered historical fiction novel; then, the shocking invention of a rudimentary time machine is introduced, and the novel takes a decidedly science fiction turn. In a way, Bring the Jubilee reminded me of Way Station in its combination of the antique (the Civil War time period) and the futuristic. The novel presents us with a problematically sad conclusion, which is chilling, melancholy, and powerfully emotional. I still don't quite know what to make of this ending, as it puts the entirety of the book, which I enjoyed so much, into a different perspective. To be sure, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but something that other readers will have to ponder for themselves.
A big reason why I liked Bring the Jubilee so much was its propensity for interesting philosophical discourse, on subjects such as the existence of god, free will, choice, the importance of time, history, and the relationship between the past and the present. Since I am more a fan of human-oriented, philosophical SF, rather than brazenly technical Hard SF, these diversions fascinated me.
Bring the Jubilee is a wise, puzzling, well-written gem of science fiction that I highly recommend to SF fans, Civil War enthusiasts,  or any reader with an open mind regarding science fiction. It truly is a travesty that such a phenomenal novel is so hard to find.