2019年9月13日 星期五

"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)


"I am Orion.  I am Prometheus.  I am Gilgamesh.  I am Zarathustra.  I am the Phoenix who dies and is consumed and rises again from his own ashes only to die once more."

Several of Ben Bova's books have been reviewed here.  You can check the sidebar for these reviews and assorted biographical details.  This will probably be the last of his novels reviewed here for some time.

Orion isn't really a science fiction novel.  There's a brief discussion of lasers near the beginning, but after that point it's firmly in the realm of fantasy.  It's in the tradition of Michael Moorcock, an author I was never that fond of, and perhaps also in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, a much earlier author who could've told this same story better.

Those familiar with Moorcock's concept of an "eternal champion" will find Orion easy to relate to.  In a world where the dual gods of the Zoroastrian pantheon are real, a human champion is created to stave off the apocalypse.  And of course he's handsome.  And of course he's strong.  And of course the love interest falls instantly and irrevocably in love with him.

The only real twist here is that time travel is involved.  The hero travels backward in time to four different historical epochs, while the villain travels forward in time to those same four historical epochs.  The hero is attempting to preserve the "space-time continuum" by ensuring that history remains the same, while the villain is trying to disrupt this continuum by altering key events in human history.  In terms of causality it really doesn't make a lot of sense, especially given the fact that the book starts in the modern day, but the author (thankfully) doesn't give the reader much time to reflect on that fact.  Instead he moves the adventure steadily forward - or backward - depending on your point of view.

Athough it might have been more fun (and less open to debate) if the author had made Orion the pinnacle of human development, and if he'd also made Orion's interventions in human history less about the species and more about ensuring that Orion himself is born at some point in the distant future.  This would have made his speculations regarding Ormazd's "plan" even more fruitful, and would have also given the novel a lot more depth.  Then again, Ben Bova obviously wasn't trying to write that kind of book.  Frank Herbert could have written the shit out of that kind of thing, but Ben Bova's a more literal type of writer.

Orion also resembles Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, though Bova's take on gods-made-real is less technologically-based, and more a straight-ahead swords and sandals adventure.  I think this straightforward approach makes the material more accessible (hence the many sequels), but fans of Bova's science fiction will probably feel alienated by this one.

For my part I thought it was brainless fun.  Could it have been better?  Certainly.  Could certain parts of it have been thought through more?  Yes.  But if you're looking for a light adventure story in which good battles evil, you could do worse than Orion.

Related Entries:

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)

2019年9月6日 星期五

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)


"She was oddly relieved that his loss of memory had been caused artificially and not intentionally.  Now she was to meet and become one of the people he had told her about."

L.P. Davies?  Who the hell is L.P. Davies?  Well, to start with, he was British and he died in 1988.  He was active from the late 60s to early 80s.  He was never famous.  This book, The Artificial Man, is perhaps the best-known entry in his bibliography.

The Artificial Man opens with a man waking up in his country house, talking with various neighbors, and then setting out for a walk in the hills.  Then begins a slow process of realization.  Everything around him, this man learns, is not as it seems, and the people in his life may have sinister intentions.

Paranoia, in other words.  And not too far out of Philip K. Dick's wheelhouse.  Like a lot of PKD's fiction, it's not so much based on scientific concepts as conjecture based on the psychological theory of the day, and also on a certain willingness to venture into the ambiguous nature of the self, one's relation to other people, and on the role of the individual in a society where good is never all that good, and evil is only a bad decision away.

This would seem to imply a novel of great depth.  This is, however, not what I want to say.  No, The Artificial Man isn't Ubik.  It isn't Dune.  It isn't The Eden Cycle.  It's more a tale of weird science, of powers of the mind gone astray, and perhaps also a tale of spies working within a geopolitical reality very similar to our own.  If it seems deep that's probably more of a coincidence, although the author is to be given credit for his way with words.

My only complaint is the plot twists near the end.  In the last fourth of this novel there's a plot twist every ten pages or so, and after the third or fourth plot twist I found myself losing interest in the story.  It would have been better, I think, to have ended the thing 50 pages or so earlier.  No need to over-complicate what was already working.

Just the same I enjoyed this book.  I doubt I'll be coming across other titles by the same author, but if I ever do I'll be glad to give them a go.

Related Entries:

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)

2019年9月2日 星期一

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)


"The hugest loss of money the whole Jupiter Project had yet sustained had been accompanied by such carnage that it fell - in the senators' minds - in the category of warfare.  When a soldier is killed by enemy action, nobody asks how much money his death cost the government through the loss of his gear.  The part of the report which described the placing of the Bridge's foundation mentioned reverently the heroism of the lost two hundred and thirty-one crewmen; it said nothing about the cost of the nine specially designed space tugs which now floated in silhouette, as flat as so many tin cut-outs under six million pounds per square inch of pressure, somewhere at the bottom of Jupiter's atmosphere  - floated with eight thousand vertical miles of eternally roaring poisons between them and the eyes of the living."

James Blish had a checkered career in science fiction.  It wasn't so much that he fell out of favor as dropped off the radar.  He wrote several inventive stories in the 50s, later combined these stories into a series of novels, and then went on to become a noted critic in the genre.  In this respect his career overlapped that of Damon Knight - another author who never quite realized his full potential - at several junctures.  Blish would end up making most of his money from a sequence of Star Trek novelizations, and I think it's fair to say that he's not well-remembered among modern readers of science fiction.

In They Shall Have Stars, the first book in Blish's Cities in Flight series, two scientific discoveries converge to trigger a new chapter in human evolution.  The first of these discoveries is a cure for aging; the second is the development of faster-than-light travel.  Both of these discoveries are made against the backdrop of Western collapse, in a society fraught with suspicion and paranoia.

In stylistic terms this novel is first-rate.  Blish really had a way with words, and his impressive vocabulary and command of characters are about as polished as you can get.  His skill with regard to the written word again brings his contemporary Damon Knight to mind, and even a casual perusal of this book brings home the fact that many science fiction writers of Blish's time were writing at a much higher level.

Blish was also a stickler for scientific accuracy, and that comes across in They Shall Have Stars.  He was writing at the forefront of scientific developments in 1957, and his background in microbiology is very apparent.  Sure, he writes about cells in the absence of DNA, and he writes about faster-than-light travel in the the absence of time dilation, but given the time in which he wrote I think he can be excused on both counts.

If I have a complaint about this book it's that it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to.  At the center of the story is a bridge some of the characters are building on Jupiter, and this bridge is intended to symbolize - at least to some extent - the decay of Western civilization.  But the book doesn't quite merge the Jovian bridge, the cure for aging and the faster-than-light narratives into a single theme, and as a result the conclusion feels very rushed.  Summarizing the end of the Cold War, the discovery of immortality, a revolution in space travel, and the possible End of History is always going to be a tall order, and even a writer of Blish's skill isn't going to be able to do that in 159 pages.

With this aside, I still think They Shall Have Stars is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in quite a while, and I plan on reading the other Cities in Flight novels whenever I have the chance.  Blish's intellect and interests were clearly wide-ranging, his writing ability was beyond question, and I'm eager to see what else he came up with during his brief career.

Related Entries:

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)

2019年8月30日 星期五

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)


This:

"Sarko glanced at Colt, then went on, 'General, it's only a matter of time before laser weapons make manned aircraft obsolete.  They'll shoot down anything in the sky with the speed of light.  What we've seen here today is just the beginning - the equivalent of the first fliers of World War I shooting at each other with revolvers.'"

...and this:

"It wasn't until the twentieth century that a new understanding of light replaced the wave theory.  But the wave theory was extremely valuable.  It explained not only light but many other things as well."

A couple of Ben Bova's other books have been reviewed here already.  Check his name in the sidebar if you're interested in reading more.  I'll also be reviewing another of his novels, Orion, in the near future.  His biographical details aside, he's one of the better-researched science fiction authors.

This book is really two books, or rather a story followed by a lengthy essay.  The story, "Out of the Sun," is a Cold War thriller following a scientist as he tries to discover the cause of several plane crashes.  It's not a very scientific science fiction story, and most of the action hinges on whether a certain kind of laser can or cannot damage a certain kind of metal.  It also feels like something that belongs more to the 60s than to 1984, the year in which this story was supposedly written.  I have the feeling that Bova dusted it off for later publication, and that it took form much earlier.

Weirdly enough, the second half of this book is an essay titled "The Amazing Laser," detailing the history of the laser from Galileo to the mid 80s.  It's a well-written tour of developments in that field, even though it seems to have been written in support of Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative.

Yet I can't help but wonder - how many people felt tricked by this book?  The front and back covers say nothing about the essay, and if you weren't looking carefully you'd also miss the minuscule mention of it on the title page.  How many people were expecting ray guns and rocket ships, only to find themselves confronted by discussions of electromagnetism and stimulated emission?  I'm guessing a lot of readers opted out of the second half, likely feeling deceived by the publisher.

If you're working your way through Bova's bibliography, you'll certainly end up reading this one.  If not, I wouldn't bother.  The concepts employed in the story have been done better elsewhere, and the essay covers material presented more effectively in any number of textbooks.

Related Entries:

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)

2019年8月29日 星期四

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)


"Manny blasted me with my first experience of a surge of psychic fear.  I couldn't mistake that, either."

James B. Johnson wrote the majority of his books from 1981 to 1991.  From what I gather from both Wikipedia and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, he was never well known in the world of science fiction.  His approach to the genre - at least as it's encapsulated on those sites - also doesn't strike me as particularly inventive or stylistically accomplished.  If Mindhopper is taken as representative of his fiction as a whole, the works of Theodore Sturgeon were a big influence on him.

In Mindhopper a young boy develops the ability to converse with certain people telepathically, and various individuals seek to use this ability to create a faster-than-light propulsion system.  The book's plot revolves around an older man's struggle to keep the young boy safe.  It's fairly violent, but at the same time very coy when it comes to sexual matters.

In stylistic terms this novel is somewhat amateurish, but then again it represented an early work by an author new to the genre, and perhaps he got better later on.  Mindhopper is written in the first person, and this storytelling device makes for some confusion in one of the book's closing chapters, where the protagonist is describing events he wasn't able to witness.  A lot of the profanity in this book struck me as somewhat juvenile, and at times the author either explains too much or too little, depending on how "scientific" the passage is.  His choice of words in certain contexts is also baffling, with many paragraphs marred by unnecessary sentences or extraneous clauses.

One could also ask the question: is this really science fiction?  As works of fiction go, there's very little science to be found in the pages of Mindhopper.  Sure, there are discussions of cars and there are discussions of car racing.  But the author's understanding of how the brain works is/was obviously rudimentary, even accounting for the time in which he wrote the book.  And as for descriptions/explanations of how telepathy ties into faster-than-light travel, he doesn't even bother.

Yet its amateurishness aside, I'd have to say that Mindhopper is a fairly consistent book.  It's not good by any stretch of the imagination, and it owes a lot to Sturgeon's More Than Human, but I've read much worse "science" fiction, and this novel isn't long enough to wear out its welcome.

Related Entries:

"Coyote" by Allen Steel (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)

2019年8月25日 星期日

"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)


"The sudden roar of engines from the opposite side of the camp draws Jorge's attention.  He looks up from the tent stake he's driving into the soft ground just in time to see the Wallace - rechristened the Mayflower - ascending into the afternoon sky on its VTOL jets.  A hot blast rips across the meadow; everywhere around him, colonists pause in their labors to cup their hands over their ears and watch the shuttle as it lifts off for its final rendezvous with the Alabama."

Allen Steel lives, surprisingly enough, in Massachusetts.  He's won the Hugo for one of his short stories and has written dozens of books.

In this book he follows a group of conspirators as they hijack a spaceship bound for another solar system.  The leaders of the conspiracy are intent on rescuing several intellectual dissidents from the clutches of an authoritarian government.  More than 200 (Sol) years later, they find themselves confronted by the challenge of colonizing a new world with limited resources at their disposal.

The first part of this novel is good.  It sets up its characters well and the author has a good grasp of the science involved.  I found the overall theme of the book ("The South will rise again!") gratingly obvious, but the author does a nice job of setting the characters on their journey.

But after the conspirators/colonists arrive on Coyote, this novel really loses a lot of its momentum.  It's here that the fact that this book was cobbled together from several short stories becomes increasingly plain, and certain details are unnecessarily repeated between different parts of the book.  A better editor would have eliminated these unnecessary details, but apparently the person in charge of editing Coyote couldn't be bothered to do so.

Where this novel really drops the ball is the ending.  I can't go into too much detail without giving this ending away, but let's just say that the colonists are faced with a very real, very technologically superior threat which they overcome in the most ridiculous way.  It's as if the author got to that point, decided he was tired of writing, and then tried to wrap up a 400+ page book in the most half-assed manner possible.  There are SO many questions left unanswered in the last section, and the colonists' ability to outwit their rivals defies understanding.

In stylistic terms Allen Steele is a good writer, but the plot of this book needs a lot of work.

Related Entries:

"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)