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 Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

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The Demolished ManThe Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

It is my firm opinion that this is a masterpiece; not just of science fiction, in which field it is regarded with a great deal of critical acclaim and is cited frequently as an inspirational source for some of the biggest names in science fiction, past and present; but of modern literature in general. I find myself wondering why it is that the literary community has just discovered a handful of science fiction and speculative fiction writers but completely missed Alfred Bester? Perhaps it is because he has left us only two novels – but what novels!

Quite a few people whom I interact with regarding science fiction, and whose opinion I respect, have read this novel. By experts in the field it’s considered one of the defining books of science fiction (and no, Margaret Atwood, there are no aliens involved). But I find myself wondering whether my colleagues have truly grasped the nuances that I see. In general they say it’s good, but they don’t seem to see the greatness in it that I do.

Nominally it’s a detective story. Ben Reich is the head of a massive corporation that buys countries in a world a couple of hundred years into our future. He’s a driven man who has determined it is necessary to murder his rival, Craye D’Courtney, whose similar corporate empire is slowly but surely defeating Reich’s. But in this world, peepers (telepaths) are employed in almost every profession in which the ability to read someone’s mind might be useful; including, of course, law enforcement. There hasn’t been a premeditated murder in 70 years because these peeper cops can detect a murder before it happens, and Reich must figure out a way to defeat this system.

If this sounds a bit to you like Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, it did to me too. Except that I looked it up; The Demolished Man was published three years before The Minority Report. My colleague Buck said in his review that this book was “Classic science fiction in the manner of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, with a touch of PKD thrown in for good measure. ” In this I find my first point of disagreement; no, PKD was a touch of Alfred Bester thrown in for good measure; at least in this one particular case. I’m sure Buck meant this as a way to describe the writing style of this novel by using comparisons to authors that readers might be more familiar with, since Bester seems to have fallen through the cracks save for serious critics of sci-fi; but no offense, Buck, because you know I respect you, but I think that was poorly phrased. And incidentally, before Philip K. Dick fans get on my case about how PKD was a total original and any similarity of plotline was a mere coincidence, I will point out that The Demolished Man was the first-ever winner of the Hugo Award, which is the first-ever award specifically for science fiction, and this cannot have escaped the notice of any significant science fiction writer of the time. Not that I think this in any way takes away from PKD as a writer, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

One of the significant plot points of the novel is that Lincoln Powell, the cop in pursuit of Reich, also happens to be the head of the Telepath’s Guild, which is (somewhat necessarily) primarily concerned with its own protection through lifelong loyalty to the Guild, which dictates everything in a telepath’s life from what jobs they accept to whom they can marry. On several occasions it becomes clear that Powell, who is just a New York City detective, has the power to order even Cabinet ministers and diplomats to drop everything to do his will, without much explanation required either, as long as those ministers and diplomats are telepaths.

In this fact is part of the true shining brilliance of this novel that I think that others may have missed. On the surface this presents as a detective story of the future, in which a cop tries very hard to get a bad guy that you know for a fact is a bad guy; one who might be very, very dangerous – perhaps as dangerous as Mussolini or Stalin – if he isn’t stopped now. Bester doesn’t pull any punches and in a style that will remind modern readers of George R.R. Martin he gives you very little to sympathize with in Ben Reich, even though Ben Reich is presented as the protagonist; and yet, you do sympathize with him. Actually, I would even suggest that this novel is perhaps better read as a second person narrative, regarding Powell as the protagonist and Reich, the villain, as merely the viewpoint character.

However, I think some serious questions have to be asked here about how far law enforcement should have the right to go, in terms of the violation of civil liberties, in order to catch a bad guy? Many of Powell’s techniques go right off the board into entrapment and torture to achieve his goal; never mind the violations of privacy implicit in having one’s mind read, and this appears to be sanctioned by the system. (Within its time it’s important to remember that McCarthyism was in full swing in the United States and FBI experiments on unsuspecting citizens using LSD were not that far off.) Once again, just like in The Stars My Destination, it’s apparent that there are no good guys in Bester’s world; we’re all just people being monkeys, with good and evil in all of us. Nobody’s hands are clean, and even choosing not to choose (such in the case of Barbara D’Courtney, daughter of the murdered man, who is thoroughly traumatized) is a choice for survival, not morality. Indeed, I would say that Bester makes the point that even choices that seem moral may be merely justifications for selfish survival. Though seemingly in contradiction, I would also argue that he clearly believes in the existence of the soul and, unlike PKD, in general has an optimistic view of humanity; a point I can’t defend without spoiling the ending, but by all means I invite people to come and debate me in our book club thread if you disagree.

My colleagues Badseedgirl and Charles also reviewed this book. In general they approved of it, and I think that Charles sees some of what I see in it, based on his review. I disagree with his opinion of the slang as “a bump in the road.” I like invented slang; I think it gives future and alternate worlds depth and improves my belief in their reality. And his comment about the Mass Cathexis scene at the end of the book also refers to one of my points as to why this is a truly great novel; not just for science fiction, but for literature in general. Truth, in this book, depends greatly upon your point of view.

Other reviewers have said that they strongly dislike the female characters in this novel; a point which has also been raised for The Stars My Destination. I think this is a valid criticism. I think they’re all wonderfully complex and well-developed people, even when they make decisions that I don’t agree with or that make me uncomfortable. They do seem to defer automatically to any male they come in contact with though (except for the fortune teller, who acquiesces to physical force). This is a flaw in 1950s science fiction and, indeed, any 1950s novel whatsoever. It is perhaps better if you think of Bester’s characters as allegories for elements of human behaviour and psychology, and not as “characters” per se. Still, I can’t disagree with this viewpoint. Do I think this is a deal-breaker that means you shouldn’t read this novel? No more than the treatment of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew should prevent you from reading Shakespeare. (No, he’s not quite The Bard. No one can beat The Bard. But the point is made.) One of the reviewers pointing this out also referred to one of the underlying psychological themes of the novel; Daddy issues. And that’s another theme you can take from it. So it’s very complex!

Lastly, I would like to point out to the small faction who complained that the Hugos had descended into a “liberal’s paradise of artsy SJWs” and thus attempted a takeover in recent years; all I have to say is that the fact that this novel was the first-ever Hugo winner tells me that the Hugos have always been about artistic merit and challenging social issues, not popularity. You are just behind the times.

All in all, quite a hell of a read, one I strongly recommend in general and one I’m going to insist that all my sci-fi fan friends read in particular.

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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 have 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 novella 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: 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: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I see why this is considered to be a classic of science fiction. I won’t bore you with details of the plot, other than, to fill in those who may not know; the classic sci-fi movie Blade Runner was based on this book.

Except, of course, in the typical manner of movies, a lot of deep and cerebral stuff was left out. For instance, there’s a whole subplot around the creation of a post-apocalyptic sort of religion and an “empathy box” which is basically, for our modern sci-fi minds, a VR system with endocrinal feedback sub-systems that affect emotion.

It’s a bleak tale that says a lot about human nature, as well as asking the obvious question that was the center of the movie plot: is there really anything about being human and alive that separates us from thinking machines? I see why people say that there’s a distinct Kafka influence in this.

Good read. Fast read; did it in a couple of days, and that’s with a full work schedule. The action and dialogue-driven plot just carries you right along.

Why did I not give it five stars then? Why didn’t I absolutely love it? Because of the characters. The characters were not real people; they were ciphers who were symbolically making the writer’s point. In other words, it can be too artsy, and it’s hard to care as much about the protagonist as I probably should have.

Still, everyone who claims to be a science fiction fan should read it. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Book Review: I Am Legend & Other Stories by Richard Matheson

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I Am Legend and Other StoriesI Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in the Science Fiction Masterworks series, I found I Am Legend to be a fascinating read. This novel is, of course, the inspiration behind the recent movie of the same name starring Will Smith, and of the sci-fi movie classic the Omega Man, along with every other zombie or vampire apocalypse through infection plotline out there (which is what differentiates it from fantasy-horror). I think it’s important for a modern reader to remember that, while zombie and vampire apocalypse infection movies are an overdone trope, this was the book that made it a trope. When Matheson wrote this, the idea was entirely original. And I would argue that none of the knockoff action-movie variants that have come out of it captured the essential human story in the way that Matheson did.

One thing that I also think is interesting, which has nothing to do with the book itself, was how clearly this story influenced the writing of Stephen King. If you read King at all, you will see this story’s indelible stamp on the more obvious ones, such as Salem’s Lot and The Stand, but I would argue you can even see it peeking out from the pages of things like The Tommyknockers and The Dark Tower series. He acknowledges this influence in an endorsement on the cover of the edition I read; as does Brian Lumley; who, for those who don’t know, is the author of the Necroscope series.

I think it’s really important to understand that the characters, vampires especially, were very human. I think this is the deeper point that the author was making. (view spoiler) In my opinion it deserves its place among the science fiction classics.

It took me a while to decide to read the rest of the stories in it. Interestingly I could see their stamp in modern horror, especially in the writing of Stephen King, also. (view spoiler) There were stories I didn’t quite get, or feel I missed something with. Others were amazing and intense. There was a really great one that I expect made an impact on Neil Gaiman, which you’ll recognize if you read his work. And one that only a writer, I think, could really appreciate. Some of the stories, I warn you, will strike the modern reader as somewhat misogynistic or racist. So keep in mind that the standards of the times were different or you won’t enjoy the book.

I’d also like to point out that there was a time you could not get this book. I was into vampire books as a teenager and I tried to read every single “classic vampire” book that anyone else had ever cited. I absolutely could not get this one, not even at rare and out-of-print bookstores. So kudos to the Orb imprint of Tom Doherty Associates (which was the edition I read,) and the Masterworks line, for giving it back to us.

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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.