Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

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Stand on ZanzibarStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

The plot synopsis posted for this book is misleading. It implies that this is a proto-cyberpunk tale of the evils of big corporations. It’s not. But the plot is rather complex so it probably works as well as anything else as a plot description. It’s not really about a plot, anyway; it’s more about the theme.

Overpopulation was a big concern for sci-fi writers in the 70s. They were concerned at the rapid birth rate and that we would be the cause of our own extinction as we overtaxed the world’s resources. The classic sci-fi movie “Soylent Green” was produced during this time, based on an award-winning short story called “Make Room, Make Room!” Fortunately, two factors seem to have thus far rescued us from this fate (but perhaps not forever, as we continue to inflame climate change): 1) modern agricultural technology (which often treats animals immorally and has done terrible things to engineered crops, not the least of which is the creation of inert seed, which I believe should be outlawed across the planet, but which has considerably maximized food production); 2) in urban environments humans have less babies because there is less advantage in it, and so the birth rate declines as the world urbanizes.

The two focal protagonists, roommates Norman House (rising star business executive in an ultra-megacorporation) and Donald Hogan (sleeper spy “synthesist” for the U.S. government) are trying to get along in this overcrowded world of the future. Most governments have imposed eugenics laws in an attempt to control population, and have forbidden breeding rights to an increasingly large group of people, justified by an ever-broadening laundry list of “genetic flaws” (colour-blindness having been one of the most recently adopted.) In the meantime, the tension of living in such close quarters is so high that people are running around on a hair trigger. “Muckers” (people running amok) are a routine danger, losing it for minor trigger reasons and going on a killing spree or blowing things up or committing serial rape. This “rat theory” (humans too crowded will kill each other like rats in a cage) has been generally disproven; but you have to use the space in such a way that it creates peace of mind, so tenement slums will likely produce overcrowded tensions, but megabuildings with a built-in park and shopping mall probably won’t.

Except, this is not happening in a small African nation called Beninia, where everyone, even though they’re living in crushing poverty and overcrowding, gets along and lives in peace. All attempts to invade them or take them as slaves have failed as the people attempting to do so just gave up. And one of their scientists has just announced a process that can genetically select to prevent all such flaws; which would completely topple the existing social order. The US send Donald to stop it, and Norman’s company send him to figure out a way to make a profit on it. In the meantime a near-sentient computer created by Norman’s company attempts to calculate all of this.

Brunner interrupts his narrative to show us media slices and slices of the lives of other people affected by this world. Many have described it as an experimental novel. Maybe it was at the time. To me, I was reminded of Frederic Pohl’s Gateway, which included slices of the local messages and advertising in his space “gold rush” town, and it didn’t throw me like it seems to have thrown others.

I think this novel was a lot of fun to read. I didn’t like it at first but it grew on me, probably because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Also, I think it has a lot to say to us in the modern time. Because of the overcrowding a vast income inequality opened up; the rich did better in this story than the poor and had to deal with less negative conditions (and that remains true because of the way in which comparative spaces are utilized for the rich and for the poor). Also, people were looking for an excuse to dislike each other and would categorize people according to any perceived difference, from race to national origin to eye colour. Perhaps this explains current politics.

Also, this novel, though in many ways it feels dated, might be one of the ways you could introduce a non-sci-fi friend to science fiction. Atwood fans might call this “speculative fiction” because the science isn’t really that far-fetched or that far in the future, and they would probably read it for the same reasons.

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Book Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

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The Fifth Head of CerberusThe Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novel of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.

The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.

You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.

What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.

The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.

So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?

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Book Review: Cities in Flight by James Blish

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Cities in Flight (Cities in Flight, #1-4)Cities in Flight by James Blish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cities in Flight is an omnibus edition of four related books written by James Blish in the 1950s and 60s. Each one is a stand-alone story but they interconnect. The essential premise of the plot is that three factors — the Cold War, the discovery of anti-aging drugs, and the invention of anti-gravity technology — results in a mass exodus of entire cities from Earth, who then spread out among the stars as independent city-states. Some colonize planets; others, called “Okies,” wander from planet to planet doing odd jobs for pay, which sustains their civilizations; but just like hobos throughout history, they are routinely harassed by the police and seen as ne’er-do-wells. It is about one such Okie city, New York, New York, that Blish writes.

The first story, “They Shall Have Stars”, is not really about the characters, but it introduces the necessary technology and geopolitical pressures that create his world. “A Life for the Stars” is a twisted bildungsroman in this unique sociopolitical landscape that Blish has created (which is a wonderful thing in and of itself; considering the sociopolitical consequences of new technologies!). “Earthman, Come Home” is arguably the most character driven book of the series. And “The Triumph of Time” is ultimately about how we human beings confront mortality; but, more than that, how we confront inevitable oblivion.

My favourite character is John Amalfi. And I love how utterly ordinary Blish’s characters are. No chiseled jaws and rippling pectorals here; just ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations in a cavalier, almost Wild West pioneer spirit. That Wild West aspect was intentional on Blish’s part. Reading the appendix you discover that Blish was directly inspired by Spengler’s “Decline of the West.”

However, there were some flaws in the characterization as well, and some characters were better realized than others. Chris, the viewpoint character of “A Life for the Stars,” was terribly undeveloped. He existed for the sole purpose of exposing Blish’s politics and science. I could have taken him or left him. And I do have to say that I find it tiresome that these men writing classic science fiction, who were so progressive in terms of many of their ideas and technology, never seemed to anticipate that women would eventually be just as likely to be in positions of political and military leadership as men. Blish even pointed out how women never end up getting selected to serve as “Mayor” (which in this story is actually a eugenically-democratically elected Emperor of a city-state) by the computers that do that selecting. I guess it was really hard for men in the 1960s to accept that their skills in this department were not genetically superior to those of women. 😉 I have to give that a pass, though, because it is ridiculous to expect works of previous time periods to conform to the standards of the present day.

I like how the events of one book have effects that ripple into the others while, at the same time, being entirely stand-alone works (though “They Shall Have Stars” might have looked better as a story in Analog or Asimov instead of as a book.)

Some of the other readers in my book club were baffled and irritated by some of the science, which reduced their enjoyment of the book. I can see their point. The anti-aging drugs weren’t that terribly well developed and probably drew back to what was cutting edge science when the book was written, which of course is now completely obsolete. And it didn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense to me either; it was just discovered that some chemical compounds prevented come kinds of cellular degeneration, and the ones discovered later were also effective at eliminating mistakes in cellular regeneration because they were able to cure cancer while the earlier ones were not (but the cancer still didn’t kill you, which is interesting.) But I was okay with the McGuffin personally; largely I think because I also read a lot of fantasy. I don’t really care how it works, to be honest. I accept that in this universe that’s the way it works, and on I go.

In the middle of the Space Race there were thought to be two major obstacles to interstellar flight; a way to overcome and/or create gravity, and the amount of time it takes to get between places in such a vast universe. Blish’s solution was people who don’t age and spindizzies. Which also inadvertently solved the radiation problem, which is one of the big concerns that is currently delaying a manned mission to Mars; apparently outside of the Earth and Moon’s magnetic field there’s a whole slew of radiation from the sun that’s really harmful to us. I’m not even sure they were aware of all that in the 1960s, when those two books were written, but that problem is solved at any rate.

I’ve also read some arguments against some other aspects of the technology being obsolete, such as the use of vacuum tubes, but here I don’t agree because there’s some very good arguments for using vacuum tubes in deep space. Consider how computers and satellites malfunction when there’s a major solar flare; do you want that happening to the computers upon which your life depends in deep space? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Still, to some extent I feel we must accept that classic sci-fi is often, by nature, going to have bad science, because our knowledge of how things actually work has increased considerably over the past two hundred years, and in exponential ways. Let’s not forget that Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells were writing perfectly acceptable science fiction for their time.

However, as I said, I can see why that lack of explanation about the anti-aging drugs could diminish enjoyment of the books and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Especially when the physics and quantum physics were so excellently done! Blish’s explanation for anti-gravity, and dealing with anti-matter, stands the test of time even today, even after all we’ve discovered about those subjects since.

The conclusion was fascinating, and also how the characters reacted to it was great. Overall, despite some significant literary flaws, mostly I think in the inconsistency in styles between the stories, I really enjoyed these books, and I see why they are considered to be classics of science fiction. Highly recommended!

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Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club

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sfmasterworkschallenge2015I was inspired by an imprint called SF Masterworks to create a book club to read legendary sci-fi classics together and critique them. This imprint will be our reading list, which we will be reading in order of publication. But you don’t have to get the books from this imprint; you can get them from Amazon, the public library; wherever you want.

Our goals are:
1. To promote the reading of science fiction.
2. To share and discuss the classics of the genre as fans and literary critics.
3. To enjoy good reading in a subject that interests us as a social activity that we can share.

List Rules:
1. You can find the list of books we’re reading at:https://www.worldswithoutend.com/lists_sf_masterworks.asp. We are reading one per month in numbered order. You will find the current book and the next five listed in a pinned post at the top of the page.
2. You can join in or leave the group, or rejoin it, at any time.
3. The group is closed to promote a safe place for discussion, but invite anyone you like.
4. Because I have to say it, harassment, abuse, insults etc. will not be tolerated. Neither will spam.
5. Try to keep the posts on topic.
6. I will not tell you NOT to discuss religion or politics, because the best science fiction is always somewhat political by nature. I will say, however, that if you choose to do so, I demand that you keep your commentary respectful of others. If you do not, you will be removed.
7. Please mark adult-specific discussion “NSFW” out of respect for others.

Care to join us?

You can find us on Facebook, Goodreads, or on Worlds Without End as a Roll-Your-Own Reading Challenge.

Effects of Spaceflight on the Human Body

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Effects of Spaceflight on the Human Body

I’ve been doing a lot of research around the current technology for spaceflight in preparation for a short story I’m submitting to a special issue of Lightspeed magazine.  There’s some really interesting stuff out there and I thought I would share it with you.  It’s a pretty brutal experience, actually; and the astronauts all make it look so easy, don’t they?