Sunday, July 20, 2014

#152: Dark Benediction, #98: We

Dark Benediction:

"There is a difference between tragedy and blind brutal calamity. Tragedy has meaning, and there is dignity in it. Tragedy stands with its shoulders stiff and proud. But there is no meaning, no dignity, no fulfillment, in the death of a child."
" 'You're one of the machine-age's spoiled children,' he fumed. 'Technologists gave you everything you could possibly want. Push a button, and you get it. Instead of taking part in the machine age, you let it wait on you. You spoiled yourself. When the machine age cracks up, you crack up, too. Because you never made yourself its master; you just let yourself be mechanically pampered.' "
"It was true. When you hung onto a piece of the past, and just hung onto it quietly, you only hurt yourself. But when you tried to bludgeon a place for it in the present, you began knocking over the bystanders."
"I have taken certain vows, young man. Sometimes when I see a beautiful woman, I feel desire. When I see a man eating a thick steak on fast-day, I feel envy and hunger. When I see a doctor earning large fees, I chafe under the vow of poverty. But by denying desire's demands, one learns to make desire useful in other ways. Sublimation, some call it. A priest can use it and do more useful work thereby. I am a priest." 
The clearest unified feeling that I can draw after finishing this diverse collection of short stories is: Wow, I wish Walter M. Miller Jr. had lived longer/been able to produce more work in his life. The quality of these stories, in addition to Miller's superb novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz, have made me a rock-solid fan. His technical skill is impressive, considering the SF field, and his stories are creative, thought-provoking, and often blistering page-turners. I usually cherry-pick a few exemplary stories in each anthology I review, but the stories here were so well-done, --diverse, yet linked by several common themes that Miller loves to play with-- that I decided to do brief reviews for all of them!
The collection opens with You Triflin' Skunk!, a well-written, spooky, backwoods SF tale that reminded me of Clifford Simak's Way Station in the way it blended a rural setting with mysterious alien visitors. It was reasonably entertaining, and quite suspenseful for such a short piece. Miller, as usual, even throws a bit of humor in there. Next came The Will, probably my least favorite piece in this collection. It's a weirdly optimistic story dealing with time travel and cancer. It's similar to You Triflin' Skunk! in that SF elements only really come into play at the end. The story's conclusion was whimsical, yet somehow it left me dissatisfied...Maybe because things worked out perfectly, and hey, this is SF, that never happens! Anybody Else Like Me? is the next story --it reminded me a lot of Robert Silverberg's novel, Dying Inside. It begins eerily, then turns into a sharp, psychological thriller. This one is very well-done in all aspects, especially the excellent ratcheting-up of suspense at the end. You might even say it has a Nightmare on Elm Street quality to it. I found it far and away the best of the first three stories.
Miller gives us a sharp turn away from what I like to call the "normal-core" SF of the first three stories, taking us to Mars in Crucifixus Etiam. It's an emotional, religiously tinged tale of sacrificing in the present to ensure the success and prospering of future generations. Its conclusion is thought-provoking and powerful. All in all, it's one of the best Mars-centered stories that I have encountered. Next comes I, Dreamer, a short, intense piece narrated by a cyborg. We get some cyborg psychology, a nasty villain, and high drama within the span of several pages. Stories like this show Miller's mastery in one distinct field: old SF concepts executed in new ways. Extremely well-done, and probably top-three in the collection.
In Dumb Waiter, we get a fine action-adventure story and an interesting post-apocalyptic scenario somewhat reminiscent of Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains. There's not as much intellectual discourse here as you would find in some other Miller stories. Still, a warm, hopeful ending, and a warning that humanity must use and understand technology, rather than letting humanity be used by technology, lends depth to the piece. After this, Blood Bank continues the fast pace. It's an adventure-oriented space opera with a few Hard SF elements. I found it to be pretty fun reading overall, with a few dated, cartoony elements drawing back from the positives, including high drama and a great concept: Earthmen as villains! Next, in Big Joe and the Nth Generation, we get a decent, fast-paced piece that reminded me of Indiana Jones, as well as Miller's own A Canticle For Leibowitz. A backward society on Mars has secrets, and one outcast is out to discover them. Another fun one, but of average quality compared with the rest of the collection.
In The Big Hunger, Miller waxes poetic. We get a grand, Stapledonian story documenting Man's longing for the cosmos across the eons. Narrated by what I think is the Platonic ideal spaceship, this one is good, but draining in a way. There's very little dialogue, and a lot of big-picture talk. It's also not quite as well-done as Stapledon's phenomenal Star Maker, although few works of SF are. After this comes Conditionally Human, one of Miller's most well-known works. An excellent, stimulating premise gives rise once again to the age-old question: What does it mean to be human? This one could be shortened a bit in my view, but it's still very interesting. And the ending left me not quite knowing what to think.
Next, we come to The Darfsteller, a Hugo Award winner, and the best story in the collection by my estimation. It's highly emotional, immediately gripping, wise, and poignant. It's also one of the least science fiction-y stories in here. The plot concerns the art of the theatre in the near future, with one major SF element introduced to it, with many consequences. This one deals with losing one's job to technology in the most fascinating way, and also begs the question, Can robots ever be better artists than humans? One of the best short stories I've ever read, and highly recommended.
Dark Benediction, the titular story, is a close runner-up for best story in the collection. It's similar to Dumb Waiter in its post-apocalyptic setting --but richer, deeper, and more engaging. This one addresses some of the positive aspects of religion (very rare in SF), as well as a slew of other big ideas. Great SF concepts abound, including the plague which gives the story its name. The main character, Paul Oberlin, and his development throughout the story are also extremely well-done -- among the best character development in the collection. After these two greats, we come to The Lineman, a near-future lunar tale that has a lot of parallels with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This one is a bit dated, but there are some interesting concepts to be found (lust in space figures prominently!). The ending is like Crufixius Etiam's in that it looks toward the future with purpose --Miller's big on this in almost anything he writes, I've found. The Lineman was of average quality in the collection, feeling a bit lacking coming right after the previous two. Finally, Vengeance for Nikolai ends the collection with a bang. It's a short, dramatic one about a near-future USSR-USA war (akin to a more technologically-advanced World War II it seems). Here, a Russian woman attempts to avenge her infant's death on a ruthless American general. I found it to be enjoyable, if a little over the top.
So there you have it, an excellent collection of SF stories from one of the greats. I truly believe that there's at least something in this one for everyone --and for me, there was quite a lot!


"Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy."
"Knowledge, self-confident knowledge, which is sure that it is faultless, is faith."
"Desires are tortures, aren't they? It is clear, therefore, that happiness is when there are no longer any desires, not a single desire any more. What an error, what an absurd prejudice it was, that we used to mark happiness with the sign 'plus'! No, absolute happiness must be marked 'minus' --divine minus!" 
Many people, including Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, will tell you that Man's end or goal is happiness. In We, Yevgeny Zamyatin takes Man's quest for happiness and flips it on its head, forcing his readers to do a lot of thinking. Written at the dawn of that supposed socialist utopia, the Soviet Union, We is a short, dense novel that has a ton of real-world significance. It's primarily known today as the main influence for Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, but seems to be rarely read in comparison to those two greats. And I'd say it's about high time that people get to taking a look at this one as well.
The main question that this very philosophical novel asks is, "Is freedom incompatible with happiness?" Our protagonist, D-503 seems to think so. He lives in a strictly regulated society, the United State, along with his fellow Numbers. They're all humans, but at times they seem more like well-oiled machines than anything. The population of the United State lives in glass apartments, an ingenious idea from Zamyatin that made me cringe. From his apartment, D-503 can look up, down, and sideways, and see exactly what his neighbors are doing. There is no privacy, save for intimate encounters with the opposite sex, which must be filed and approved with the State beforehand. Everyone's life is regulated by Tables of Hours --at all times they must follow their schedule, whether it calls for work, rest, or education in official State values.
Things get shaken up when D-503, the head builder for the Integral, a ship that will spread the values of the United State to the cosmos, falls in love. Indeed, the entire system that grounds the United State starts to experience trauma as he finds his place in a greater conspiracy against the State, and the Well-Doer --a supremely powerful dictator who rules over it. He is alternately paranoid for fear of discovery by State spies --the Guardians-- and hopeful that his treasonous activity will be found out and corrected by the State, to whom he never seems to completely lose allegiance. The novel is written as if it were D-503's diary, and we get a great glimpse into his frazzled state of mind throughout.
The novel starts off slowly and disorients you at times, but once the mystery of I-330's role in the story starts to be fleshed out with masterful suspense, it turns into quite a page turner. It's possible that this is a problem with Zilboorg's translation (the one I read), but the prose can be flighty and hard to follow in certain sections that detail traumatic events for D-503. There are quite a lot of unfinished thoughts and ellipses. I'm fairly sure this is intentional on the author's (and translator's) part for the obvious reason of accentuating the trauma of each situation, but just be warned: there will be a few paragraphs here and there that you will have to read several times over to get the full picture. The counterpoint to this occasionally awkward, bustling, unfocused musing are moments of feeling, beauty, and wisdom that we get more and more as the story progresses. I won't spoil any, but even in translation, it's clear to me that Zamyatin is a talented and pithy writer.
At its conclusion, We gives us an excellent, short scene that may be the inspiration for one of my favorite scenes in all of SF: the Savage's conversation with Mustapha Mond in Brave New World. The Well-Doer speaks eloquently and angrily in defense of the State, and we are forced to listen to his perverse, yet somehow also sensible logic. The novel's conclusion is chilling and much too abrupt (although again, there is an obvious reason for this), but it stays in your mind in the same way as the conclusion of 1984 does (although I think Orwell's conclusion was more powerful).
We is a book that challenges preconceived notions of many kinds. And it hasn't aged much since its publication in the 1920s. I'd highly recommend this one for the more philosophical-minded SF fan, and especially those who've enjoyed 1984 and Brave New World. This dusty old semi-forgotten classic is in fact filled with life and very much worth reading.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

#103: A Scanner Darkly, #146: The Child Garden

A Scanner Darkly:

"You put on a bishop's robe and miter...and walk around in that, and people bow and genuflect...and try to kiss your ring, if not your ass, and pretty soon you're a bishop. So to speak. What is identity...Where does the act end? Nobody knows."
" 'It --must --be --day,' the junkie says, or anyhow the tape in his head says. Plays him his instructions, the mind of a junkie being like the music you hear on a clock sometimes sounds pretty, but it is only there to make you do something. The music from the clock radio is to wake you up; the music from the junkie is to get you to become a means for him to obtain more junk, in whatever way you can serve. He, a machine, will turn you into his machine."
"What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me --into us-- clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."
I like to call Philip K. Dick the Shakespeare of science fiction because he produced a significant number of all-time classics in the SF field, just as Shakespeare did for literature in general, to go along with a good deal of sub-par work early in his career. But PKD may in fact be the anti-Shakespeare in one respect: he puts so much of himself into every page of his work, so that reading his novels can become similar to reading an autobiography --in contrast to the ever-elusive Bard.
A Scanner Darkly, along with VALIS, is amongst PKD's most heavily autobiographical works. A sort of drugged-out Jekyll and Hyde story set in the near future 1990s (Scanner was published in 1977), this novel is much less a work of science fiction, and more an anti-drug novel with a few sci-fi elements thrown in. It achieves its anti-drug message not through moralistic finger-wagging or larger-than-life theatrics, but through a straightforward, honest, realistic depiction of drug culture in Southern California. PKD himself essentially lived this book, futuristic police force aside, freely admitting in his afterword that many of the novel's characters are based on junkie friends of his (most of whom are dead or psychologically impaired thanks to their addictions).
The plot concerns a junkie named Bob Arctor, who lives in a dilapidated house in SoCal, along with two fellow addicts, Ernie Luckman and Jim Barris. But here's the twist: Arctor is actually an undercover cop known as "Fred", and he reports on the group and their surrounding social circle regularly. He is so deep undercover that his direct superiors don't know who he is, and of course, they assign him to monitor Bob Arctor more closely... he has been acting suspicious of late. The head trip isn't done there, because Arctor, thanks to the requirements of his job, is addicted to Substance D, a drug that causes personalities to split in two --now Bob has forgotten he is Fred, and Fred is desperately trying to figure out this Arctor character through the secret surveillance scanners that have been mounted in his home!
Scenes of frantic, wild-eyed paranoia abound, and as you'd expect with a PKD novel, you'll start questioning your own sanity somewhere along the line! But what truly makes this novel one of PKD's masterpieces is the way he turns depraved characters into objects of extreme interest; he is realistic and pitying, yet also harsh when dealing with the condition of the drug addict, and his descriptions are fed by all too much firsthand experience (I found certain scenes to be reminiscent of AMC's Breaking Bad in this respect). It is sad and scary in that it seems to be 100% sincere honesty from an author who has seen a lot in his time. The author's note at the end is a touching way to finish off this highly emotional work, which, as you'd expect from the author of Ubik, features a surprising ending. The only gripe I have with A Scanner Darkly is the slowish pace starting off. The story of Jerry Fabin is a phenomenal way to open an anti-drug novel, but after this, PKD slows down to introduce us to a sizeable cast of characters (quite typical for him). The pace accelerates soon after.
This may be one of PKD's most poignant and well-written novels. It has a depth and maturity that exceeds his earlier work and a certain introspectiveness that one would expect from a philosophy major. I'd recommend this one to any sci-fi fan, with one warning. It is very bleak and depressing, and the ending will not leave you a bright-eyed optimist. But it is one of the very best from one of SF's greatest authors.

The Child Garden:


"They were all young and soft, and they had no time, and so they hated the silence, the silence in themselves that had yet to be filled by experience. Some of them were driven to make noise, were kept jumping by something that was alive inside them. Others like Milena, cleared the decks and waited for something to happen, something worthwhile to do or to say. They loathed the silence in themselves, not knowing that out of that silence would come all the things that were individual to them."
"'s hard to believe how complex people are. Like a whole universe. There's all this chattering going on in their heads. Mist we call it, like the inside of clouds. It fogs everything, stops people seeing. Most people function by shutting almost everything out. Below that, there's the Web. That's the memory. That's where everything is stored, and the Web is a real mess. You can get tangled up in it. A very complex personality is actually difficult to get out of. It can be very scary. Underneath that is the Fire, and that just burns. That's where the heart is."
"If cancer did not swim in the same sea as us, we might admire it, as we admire sharks. We might admire its simplicity and fitness for purpose, its lethal beauty."
I have thought, for quite a long time now, that Philip K. Dick's VALIS would remain the strangest, most unique novel that I have ever read. VALIS may have to move over at this point, because The Child Garden is quite unlike anything I've ever read before. The phantasmagoric plot of this science-fantasy novel defies any attempt at succinct description, but I will try my best. In fact, it felt like I was reading an Impressionist painting (in novel form) at many points.
The plot concerns a young woman named Milena who lives in a strange socialist London, hundreds of years in the future. Cancer has been cured, but people only live until their mid-thirties. Technology seems to have regressed quite a bit, and electricity has been lost. People are educated by specially-developed viruses that inject information-laden DNA into the brain so they can develop quicker than nature would allow, in order to make the most of their 35 years alive. And I haven't even gotten to the really weird stuff yet. Milena is resistant to the viruses, and thus struggles in a future in which almost everyone has the same conglomerated clump of knowledge present in their brains. She is also a lesbian, and she acts quite differently from the assimilated drone-like humans who have been "Read" for the "Consensus" --a living socialist organism that is made up of small copies of every normal Londoner's consciousness. Milena falls in love with another person who has not been Read by the Consensus, a genetically engineered woman named Rolfa, who is, physically at least, a bear. Geoff Ryman throws outlandish information such as this at the reader with alarming frequency, and you learn to go with the flow --or quickly drop the book in bewilderment.
But there's no doubt that Ryman is an excellent technical writer. He opens Part One with a whimsical, yet melancholy voice, giving this future London a moody, atmospheric vibe that leaps off the page. I quite enjoyed Part One, which is, all weirdness aside, a fairly traditionally told story. Part Two, however, was not as enjoyable for me. It is slightly reminiscent of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, jumping around in time without warning, and leaving the reader feeling disoriented and confused. Part Two was very episodic; I enjoyed some of these episodes quite a bit, but was bored or put off by others. In addition, Part Two focuses on Milena much more than Rolfa, and I felt that the novel lost some pizzazz with the absence of such an interesting character. Milena can come across as whiny at times, whereas Rolfa was mysterious, intriguing, and somehow, more genuine. I couldn't quite connect with Part Two as I think Ryman wanted his audience to connect. Although there were many powerful scenes, it was too disjointed and weird in the end for me to completely enjoy. Another gripe I had with the novel was its lack of a solid antagonist. Thrawn McCartney was suitably sadistic and crazed, and the psychological torments she visited upon Milena were suitably horrid, but she was underused in the grand scheme of things, in my view. Finally, I couldn't grasp the logic of Rolfa's Reading at the end of Part One --it seemed counterintuitive to say the least. But then again, listing all the minor points of this novel that seemed inexplicable would take up several pages of text.
With that being said, the novel had many strong points, most of all the phenomenal technical and descriptive acumen of the author. The meditations on silence throughout the novel are particularly excellent --they reminded me of the pseudo-SF short story, The Year of Silence. The SF ideas are incredibly creative, indeed some of the most interesting ideas about viruses and genetic engineering that I have ever encountered. Ryman gives us an outlandish world and somehow achieves a surprising sort of sense and normalcy; despite its weirdness, he makes the reader feel the realness of his world. Although I enjoyed the skilled tone and technique that Ryman flaunted in this novel, I could not connect to it as deeply as I would have liked. I would recommend it only to open-minded folks who are ready for bizarre beauty, twists and turns, and a novel like nothing that they have ever read before.