"The birth of a child had become a comparative rarity, and only one marriage in ten yielded any offspring. As Kerans sometimes reminded himself, the geneaological tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself, apparently moving backwards in time, and a point might ultimately be reached where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden."
J.G. Ballard was a British writer best known for his books Empire of the Sun and Crash. His earliest fiction, however, falls within the category of science fiction. The Wind From Nowhere was his first published novel, and The Drowned World was his second.
In The Drowned World, solar flares have warmed the globe to the point that the polar ice caps are melting, and the equatorial regions have become uninhabitable. In The Wind From Nowhere, a global cyclone rips across the surface of the Earth, quickly eroding the foundations of human civilization. In both books mankind faces the prospect of its own obsolescence, and in both books one finds the depth of characterization, intellectual weight, and skillful prose that would later make the author famous.
And really, in this time of global warming and weird weather you don't get more prescient than The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World. At times it seems as if Ballard was describing the present day. Not only this, but the reasons behind these catastrophes are well thought out, and explored with a thoroughness that few other science fiction writers could have matched.
This said, I think there are really two kinds of "hard science fiction," (or, I'm tempted to say, "deeper science fiction"). There are the books so brilliant that it's hard to understand why they weren't more popular, and there are books so brilliant it's easy to understand why they never found an audience. Thinking back to the time when these two books were first published, it's easy to assign both The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World to the second category. Their quality is in no doubt, but it's obvious that they must have gone over the heads of most science fiction fans at the time. Lovers of rocket ships and Martian landscapes wouldn't have had the patience for these books, and this fact is far from surprising.
If you can wade through books like Solaris and The Castaways of Tanagar, you'll love this book. If Heinlein and Le Guin are more your thing, I would recommend looking elsewhere.
"'Maybe this world didn't turn out to be what you thought it was going to be. So what?'"
The Riverworld series is Philip Jose Farmer's best known creation. To be honest, the premise behind Riverworld always sounded somewhat retarded to me, and the titular story did nothing to change my mind.
Fortunately there are other stories in this collection, and most of these stories reveal Farmer to have been a writer of surprising talent and versatility. There is one embarrassingly bad story in this book (The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod), but it's mercifully short, and easily skipped over.
The best (by far) is The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol, which first appeared in the pages of Playboy. It follows the adventures of Henry Miller during his final days, and is one of the best things I've read in a long while.
It's only sad that Farmer is best remembered for Riverworld, a sub-par fantasy series if there ever was one. The guy had talent, the guy had imagination, and it's a shame he felt such a need to pander to his audience, with characters and themes borrowed from more daring writers. With his skill, he could have done much more than that.
"Orc removed a little black book from a pocket, opened it, consulted a page, said something that sounded like gibberish, and the door opened. He replaced the book and stood to one side as the cage rolled into a large room. It stopped in the exact center."
The Lavalite World is, for all intents and purposes, the last book in Farmer's World of Tiers series. By some accounts, there are two other books in this series: Red Orc's Rage and More Than Fire. But Red Orc's Rage is only tangentially connected to The World of Tiers, and More Than Fire was written so long after The Lavalite World that one could easily regard it as apocryphal.
The Lavalite World, although written a whopping 7 years after Behind the Walls of Terra, picks up where the previous book left off. Kickaha and Anana are still on the Lavalite World, and still trying to foil the schemes of Red Orc and Urthona.
The writing in this novel is much more mature than that seen in previous installments, though there are misspellings, and some embarrassing grammar ("much potentialities"). Pacing is no longer an issue, the author does a better job of foreshadowing, and the characters' motivations are clear throughout. The ending of this book, which is (for all intents and purposes) the end of the series, also seems much less arbitrary. Farmer put a lot more thought into The Lavalite World, and it shows.
And I've got to say, you don't get more 70s than a science fiction novel about five people trapped inside a virtual lava lamp. There's even a black character who says things that white people think black people ought to say, and an escape sequence near the end that's delightfully weird. In many ways it's a throwback to the only other good book in the series, The Gates of Creation, but it's also its own creature, playing by a newer and more interesting set of rules.
The Lavalite World isn't high art by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a solid book that deserves to be read. No, it's not The Godmakers. No, it's not The Eden Cycle. No, it's not V.A.L.I.S. But as adventure stories go, it's one of the better efforts by one of the less famous science fiction writers. And while I can't recommend The World of Tiers as a series, I can recommend this book without any reservations.
|Who says science fiction can't be homoerotic?|
"'And I could not go to the men who had carried out my orders and say, 'Here I am, your own true Lord! Obey me and kill that fool who is now giving you orders!' I would have been shot down at once, because Urthona had described me to his servants, and they thought I was the enemy of their leader.'"
Behind the Walls of Terra is the fourth book in Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers series. The first book, The Maker of Universes, the second book, The Gates of Creation, and the third book, A Private Cosmos have all been reviewed here. After this entry there is only one more book in the series - A Lavalite World.
In this installment, Kickaha and Anana journey back to Earth as they chase the last of the Black Bellers. Jadawin/Wolff and his lover Chryseis have preceded them through the earthbound gate, and eventually all four must contend with Red Orc, the Lord of Earth.
Behind the Walls of Terra is MUCH better than the previous book in the series, though a sense of suspense is largely absent from the book. The characters are handled better; their actions seem believable, but it's hard to care much about them. They are primarily action figures, which would have been fine if the plot had been better thought out.
More foreshadowing would have also done wonders for this book. As it is, the ending just kind of happens, and there's no real twist at the end which would have made the book much better. There are some allusions made to Kickaha's "true parentage," but the nature of this parentage - along with the whereabouts of both Wolff and Chryseis - are abandoned to the book's sequel.
And what are the "walls" of Terra, exactly? The book makes no mention of them!
Anyway, it's an improvement over A Private Cosmos. Hopefully the last book in the series, A Lavalite World, is better still.
"'Now the scientists had originally constructed the Beller so that it was purely automatic. It had no mind of its own; it was a device only. When placed on a man's head, it detected a man's skin potential and automatically extruded two extremely thin but rigid needles. These bored through the skull and into the brain.'"
A Private Cosmos is the third book in Farmer's World of Tiers series. The first book, The Maker of Universes, and the second book, The Gates of Creation, have also been reviewed here.
In a A Private Cosmos, Wolff's adventurer friend Kickaha takes center stage as a malignant form of artificial intelligence threatens the tier-shaped world that Wolff created. In his battle Kickaha is joined by Anana, Wolff's sister, and also by the half-insane Podarge, the "harpy" introduced in The Maker of Universes.
As science fiction novels go, it's fairly arbitrary and nonsensical. As an adventure story, it's readable but not involving. Unlike the two previous novels in the series, there seems to be little internal logic to this one, and the author seems to be making everything up as he goes along. An obstacle is presented, the characters overcome it, but the manner in which they overcome the obstacle rarely arises from the events which preceded it, or from some larger set of principles that one could deduce from commonalities present in both our world and the World of Tiers.
In the end, the kind of internal logic which A Private Cosmos lacks is what separates an indifferent novel from a good one. It's like a chess game played between the author and the reader, or a chess game played between the author and himself. The rules of engagement ought to be obvious, and they should be made clear from the beginning. A good author will then use these rules to create surprise, or suspense, or a sense of tension in the plot, or even turn these rules on their head by the end of the story. But the rules will remain rules, and not just a set of conditions that the author adds to as he (or she) goes along. This is the biggest problem in A Private Cosmos: the rules of the game - if there are any - are never explained.
And then there are the analogies present in the book. Throughout the narrative, Farmer (through Kickaha) compares the World of Tiers to Earth, and this draws the reader out of the narrative flow. Even worse, it makes the World of Tiers seem far less alien, and far more artificial. The world presented in the book could have been presented in far more general language - sans earthy analogies - and it would have come across much stronger.
But oh well. Again, taken as an adventure story it's not terrible. It's just not very good. I'm hoping the next book in the series, Behind the Walls of Terra, improves upon its predecessor.
"...But the reader is perhaps a trifle weary of these procedural details, no less than of these Court intrigues. From all such matters, the moral can be drawn that the man who approaches a Court compromises his happiness, if he is happy, and in any case risks making his future depend on the intrigues of some chambermaid.
"On the other hand, in America, in the Republic, one must waste a whole day in paying serious court to the shopkeepers in the streets, and must become as stupid as they are; and over there, no opera."
The Charterhouse of Parma is the story of Fabrizio, an attractive, simple-minded man of noble birth. He grows to manhood in northern Italy, witnesses the battle of Waterloo, is imprisoned for murder, and falls in love with a woman he can never truly possess. His struggles are set against the background of imperial Europe in the wake of Napoleon, and the court intrigues which put him both in and out of harm's way form much of the book's plot.
It's not a bad book, but it didn't impress me the way Stendhal's The Red and the Black did, years ago. Yes, the delightful kind of cynicism that made The Red and the Black so good is still present, but in The Charterhouse of Parma it's less obvious, and in my opinion the plot is too convoluted for its own good. I would have preferred something simpler, and more to the point. I would have preferred less artifice, and more art.
But mine is perhaps the minority opinion. I know people who rave over this book, and far be it from me to convince them otherwise. As it is, I think it's worth reading, but extremely overrated. It doesn't make the same kind of sweeping (if questionable) points about European politics that War and Peace does, and yet it doesn't seem to narrow its focus quite enough, so that the characters remain indistinct, and less authentic. There was a wonderful, fable-like quality in The Red and the Black that is almost entirely absent from this book, and this absence left me feeling disappointed.
I'd recommend The Charterhouse of Parma if you've read the other major French novels, but be warned that it wears out its welcome rather quickly.
"The experience of 1878-1882 had shown that both Pan-Slavism and populism were inadequate as strategies for bringing Russian state and Russian people closer together. At the same time, anti-Jewish pogroms had taken place in parts of the Pale of Settlement after Alexander II's assassination, and they inspired Ivan Aksakov, one of the leading Pan-Slavs, with the notion that there was a possible alternative ideology, namely popular anti-Semitism, to mobilize spontaneous dislike which peasants and workers felt for Jewish publicans, shopkeepers, and moneylenders. 'The Jews within the Pale of Settlement,' he preached, 'constitute a "state within a state." ...a state whose center lies outside Russia, abroad, whose highest authority is the "Universal Jewish Alliance" in Paris.' This alliance, he warned, was striving to achieve "anti-Christian world domination...""
How much do you know about Russian history? If you are like me, your knowledge of the subject consists primarily of answers to Jeopardy! questions, snippets from Bond movies, and the occasional newspaper report.
Russia, for most of us in the West, is the continual "Other," and our attitudes toward it are often more informed by what we don't know than what we do know. It is in many instances our ignorance that defines Russia, and this ignorance often says as much about the propaganda that we grew up with as it does about the Russians themselves.
So, with this fact in mind, I set about reading Geoffrey Hosking's large and somewhat imposing book. It wasn't an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it was informative.
Russia began as the Kingdom of Rus, a backward nation in the orbit of the Byzantine Empire. The people of Rus were Varangians, or "Vikings." who migrated southward into the vicinity of Kiev from the Baltic. They were an agricultural people, and in the establishment of their empire they pushed many other, nomadic peoples out of their immediate vicinity.
Contact with Byzantium brought the primary "civilizing" influence to these early Slavs. Missionaries were sent, Cyrillic was devised for the conversion of heathen souls, trading routes and rules of dynastic succession were imposed and defended, and in a few generations the Kingdom of Rus - also referred to as Kievan Rus - was a regional power that the Byzantines had to take seriously.
Then, as often happens, chaos reigned in the absence of a suitable source of authority. Kiev largely disappeared from regional politics, to be replaced by Moscow. With the rise of Moscow came the reign of the tsars, whose church-sanctioned authority mirrored that of the Byzantine emperors. The only difference was that in Byzantine politics the Patriarch acted as a kind of counterbalance to the emperor, while in Moscow the church was much weaker, and more dependent on the state.
After the Mongol Invasions and the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Empire began to expand. The reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great saw the imperial borders pushed both east and west. To the west they encountered other European powers, and thus a European influence was felt among the landed gentry. To the east were the nomads, upon whom the Russians were in turn a formidable influence. Furthest east were the Chinese, who for most of their history have formed an obstacle to Russian designs in East Asia.
At the heart of all this expansion was the institution of serfdom, or enslavement to the land. Despite increasingly liberal attitudes towards politics and other subjects, the institution of serfdom would remain both Russia's advantage and disadvantage over neighboring countries. This remained so up until the early years of the Soviet Socialist Republics.
Then - as hopefully everyone knows - the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, and the communists came to power. In the early years, the soviets did their best to engineer a climate of fairness and legality, though from the beginning there was a tendency for power to concentrate at the top, and a system of patronage to develop. In spirit it wasn't that different from what most Russian people experienced under the Tsar.
World War II arrived soon after, and millions died through both conflicts with the Germans and bad military strategy. This was the era of Stalin, in which people vanished in the night, or were forcibly relocated to labor camps on the other side of the continent. Stalin's power was to be found in the files he possessed, and Stalin had a file on everyone.
After Stalin's death the Soviet Union experienced a series of liberal reforms, right up until its dissolution in the early 1990s. It was nationalism that proved the Union's undoing, as regional conflicts escalated to the point where maintaining the USSR became untenable. The loss of East Germany and Ukraine started this trend, and in their wake followed Lithania, Albania, Kazakhstan, and many other former territories.
Leading us to the Russian Federation, which still exists at the time of writing. The book ends with a brief mention of Putin and his struggles with separatists, and says no more. No grand conclusion is arrived at, there are no musings on the vast sweep of Russian history, and the reader is left on the verge of the present day, pondering a country that is at once powerful and sadly backward.
Taken all in all, I'd have to say that Russia and the Russians is a good book that taught me a lot. I also have to say, however, that the lack of any conclusions about Russia's present situation left me feeling a little disappointed.
But maybe Russia, taken as a subject, is just too vast to generalize over, and more meaningful conclusions await future days, when we are further removed from both Russia's past troubles and its present successes.
At any rate, I'd like to visit Moscow some day. It sounds like an interesting place.