100 sf

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

#11: Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore

“The historian is always conscious of destiny. The participants rarely--or mistakenly.”

One of the staples of the sf literary diet is the alternative history/alternative reality subgenre. Really, this type of storytelling has been around since the first person thought “what if blumpity blump happened instead of…,” which I imagine was a long time ago (what if Ung crushed Grok’s skull with a rock instead of Bron’s). In the modern age, there are two main events sf writers have tended to ask the what if question of--World War II and the Civil War. I would guess this is because both are often perceived to have been “won” by the “right” side. So wouldn’t it be scary if the bad guys came out on top for once. One of the defining novels of this subgenre is…wait for it…that’s right…Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee.

Joseph Ward Moore (1903-1978) was certainly not prolific, but because of Bring the Jubilee and his earlier novel Greener Than You Think, he’ll always have a place of honor in the field. BTJ is the story of Hodge Backmaker, a child of the 20s living in a world where the Confederacy won “The War of Southron Independence.” The United States is a backwater collection of 26 states barely surviving, while the Confederacy encompasses not only the southern part of our US, but also much of Central and South America. So while New York is a city of 1 million in the 1940s, with folks still driving horses and Brooklyn acting as a neighboring city, the real centers of industry and growth are St. Louis (finally we come out on top of Chicago!!!), Washington-Baltimore, and Leesburg (formerly known as Mexico City). The United States has also driven out all black folk, seen large anti-Asian (murdering) campaigns, and exists in a state in which most of its inhabitants live indentured to the few landed families left. The Confederacy, on the other hand, abolished slavery and has an open immigration policy. Along with Britain, which also rules British America (Canada), and the German Empire, which grew unfettered during the Emperor’s War (WWI), the Confederacy is a world superpower.

Now Hodge is a historian by profession, and since the great eastern schools in the United States are just hollow shells of learning, he joins an interesting commune in Pennsylvania known as Haggershaven. Haggershaven is an alternative to the university system. Scholars, researchers, intellectuals live together on a farm, sharing both chores and intellectual pursuits. Among these folks is the inventor of a time machine. What better device is there for a historian than a time machine? Well, the problem is…

I’m glad David Pringle made me sit down with this one; it would have sat on my “to read” shelf forever if not. And that would have been a shame. The novel is fascinating. Moore’s characters are either actors or spectators. Hodge is the latter. At times this is a saving attribute, other times not so much. While on the one hand he befriends an intellectual from Haiti named Enfandin, he also spends his early adulthood loyally working for a member of the Grand Army--an organization that plays a similar role in the alternate US that the Ku Klux Klan played in the real South after Reconstruction. And there are other fascinating aspects about this world: the 40s and 50s are almost like the 19th Century of our world, only with gadgets (almost steampunkish if you ask me); familiar figures take on new roles (Henry Adams is the author of Causes of American Decline and Decay); Freud seems not to have developed psychiatry, rather a fellow at Haggershaven is doing that work; and there’s a damn time machine, people!

Monday, November 27, 2006

#10: The Paradox Men (1953) by Charles L. Harness

“He had not the faintest idea who he was.”

“If the man with the spear could have reasoned first and hurled second, his descendants might have reached the stars within a very few millennia.”

Charles Leonard Harness (1915-2005) was closer to being a true pulp writer than most of the folks on Pringle’s list, but he was also a major influence on many sf writers (particularly Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss), even if most fans have never heard of him or read his work. Writing was always a secondary pursuit in his life, regardless of whether that’s the way he wanted it to be or not. A native of Texas, he spent most of his adult life as a patent lawyer out East. He also, like a many sf writers from his generation, had a strong background in science, particularly chemistry, and one passion from his childhood was building his own radio from scrap parts. His writing style was schlock-y, but his science background came through in the end, as it does in The Paradox Men.

Harness always had more of a following in the UK than he did in the States, which has led to a sparse and uneven printing history for TPM. Its first form was a novella, and when it was expanded to book-length form, the title was Flight Into Yesterday. It wasn’t until a later revision and expansion that the book gained the title it is generally referred to by today.

The story itself is a bit of a mess: part swashbuckling adventure, part space opera, and part meditation on the paradoxes of Einsteinian physics and Toynbeean history. The main character is a forgetful fellow known as Alar who has taken up with a society of thieves rebelling against the repressive, slave-sanctioning imperial government of America in the 22nd Century. Alar, like all thieves, wears a protective shield that stops projectiles but not hand-held weapons. Thus, swordplay is in vogue and the best of the best have unusual weight in an otherwise gadget-filled society. An East-West war is on the verge, and a group of Toynbeean historians has built a spaceship they hope will help usher in the next Toynbee civilization, T-22 (also the original working title for Harness’ novella). A fascinating idea really considering Arnold Toynbee has next to no presence in history departments these days. But I digress.

At the heart of the narrative is a time paradox. This spaceship or one just like it crashes on Earth five years before it has been built. One of the passengers is Alar, who has no idea who he is and who exhibits superhuman powers. Gone missing during this same time period is Kennicot Muir, the founder of the thieves’ group. His wife, Keiris, is now a slave wife of mover-and-shaker Haze-Gaunt, who happens to keep as a pet a weird tarsier (also a survivor from the crash) that has the ability to speak but only the phrase “Don’t go! Don’t go!” Crazy enough for you? Well, there’s also a former circus freak named Meganet Mind who can answer any question, a major crash into the Sun, and an appearance by a Neanderthal.

Aldiss calls Harness’ work “Widescreen Baroque,” by which he means a story that transcends space opera and allows its characters to act in an unfettered manner. And while I won’t lie and say that The Paradox Men is my favorite novel of the first ten on David Pringle’s list, Aldiss’ description is true. You never know what’s going to happen on the next page.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

#9: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

“There had been no warning when the great ships came pouring out of the unknown depths of space. Countless times this day had been described in fiction, but no one had really believed that it would ever come. Now it had dawned at last; the gleaming, silent shapes hanging over every land were the symbol of a science man could not hope to match for centuries.”

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (b. 1917) is one of the big guns of sf. He, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov are often referred to as “the Big Three.” British by birth, Sri Lankan by residency, he’s had a long and illustrious career. I personally think he's one of the most fascinating and brilliant sf writers ever, and there’s no question that he’s unique. Clarke has a background in physics and mathematics, and he served for a time in the RAF. He’s also an accomplished skin diver, and he’s been a featured commentator on science for sources worldwide. It’s no surprise then that his work is often thought of as part of the “hard science” subgenre of sf. But that’s not the whole story. Clarke’s work also shows a fascination with the spiritual and, in the case of Childhood’s End, the occult. (He’s even been a fan of Yuri Geller.) This all adds up to what Peter Nicholls has called “the Arthur C. Clarke Paradox”--a belief in the power of science to make human life better while simultaneously looking to a higher intelligence (but not a god) to help usher human progress along.

As I said before, Childhood’s End features Clarke’s intertwining of hard science and spiritualism, and it’s one of his best novels. The first section of the book takes place during the first years after a worldwide shock. An alien species nicknamed “the Overlords” arrives in gigantic spaceships that they park in the skies above all the major human settlements across the globe. (V and Independence Day copied this powerful image, but ACC was there first.) Despite the menacing image, the Overlords are on a peaceful mission, and they become caretakers of the planet and usher in a scientific and intellectual utopia, while simultaneously refusing to reveal their physical appearance. Then the shocker comes when they finally do--they look just like demons: wings, horns, and all. They even smell like brimstone.

The second section of the book details the utopia the Overlords have created: almost no crime, a leveling of classes and races, complete freedom of movement and access to information, a 20-hour workweek, and the elimination of mechanical and menial tasks. I have one word for it…SWEET! Granted, the rule of the Overlords has the smell of the British Empire (Clarke has lived in Sri Lanka as a rich, white ex-pat Brit since the mid-50s), and there are some serious restrictions in the society they create. Most severely, the Overlords allow no space travel for humans. Now that would piss me off, but otherwise I could get use to the Overlord utopia. Come on short workweek!

The third section features two narratives. One concerns the journey of a human who discovers a way around the sanction on space travel. The other is the basis for the book’s title. Clarke reveals the end of humanity’s “childhood.” And while I won’t tell you what that is, I’ll let you know that it was the inspiration for a certain Led Zeppelin album cover. And if Led Zeppelin put it on an album, don't you think you should sure as hell read it?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

#8: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury

“Let me take you to the empty place in my fire engine.”--13th Floor Elevators

“Those who don’t build, must burn.”--Faber

Most people in the US read Bradbury’s (b. 1920) Fahrenheit 451 at some point. Perhaps because of Bradbury’s puritanical view of comics, fast cars, and music piped straight into the ear, high school teachers seem to be big fans and throw the book at students year after year, especially during a lesson on censorship and/or during banned books week. And why not? Fifty years later, don’t we see faint glimpses of Bradbury’s world around us: iPods, shrinking pedestrian zones, aggressive driving, flatscreen tvs, and the general sense of a faster world with less leisure time?

So you know the story: fireman Guy Montag rebels against a book-burning America after meeting a strange young girl, seeing a woman burn with her books, and actually sitting down with a couple of texts himself. What a strange and clumsy character Montag is--not really the stuff of legend. He’s almost unable to make decisions without some sort of input from another: his boss Beatty, a seventeen-year-old neighbor, the reclusive Faber. But he’s a man trapped in a morally confusing job with the status quo of society sleeping next to him in bed every night--a recipe for confusion. But Montag also has balls enough to recite poetry, burn the bejesus out of his superior, and cross the river to the land of intellectual hoboes. So let’s give him credit for that at least.

Something that really sticks out to me, having now read the book four times in my life, is how much more complex society is in the novel than how the official line (“It’s a book about censorship”) suggests. Bradbury suggests, I think, that it’s our society that creates the situation of Fahrenheit 451, not a fascist government coming to power and shoving censorship down the throats of its citizens. Literature becomes smaller and smaller (condensed novels, magazines, comic books, etc.) while more and more groups lash out at insensitivity and offensiveness in literature. This equation leads to voluntary book burning, and we can assume that’s when government stepped in to use the intellectual climate for its own agenda. Years later, most people don’t care. They get to drive as fast as they want, they have entertaining (maybe) and interactive tv to watch, and their homes are fireproof (what else could you ask for?). This all leads to a kind of amnesia. Firefighters don’t remember that they used to put out fires, not create them, and Montag’s wife Mildred can’t even remember how she met him. By the way, do you remember the major events of 2005 still? Or even what happened over the last summer? Just checking.

But what are Montag, Faber, and Granger (hobo intellectual) fighting for? The rights of the minority to be able to read? An eventual evangelism of the classics? The rebirth of literature itself? I think most of us come away from the novel thinking we know the answer. Most students would say free speech and the right to obtain and collect intellectual property. But what about literature itself? The depths, peaks, and valleys of it. The good and the bad. Sorrow and happiness. While Montag is able to elicit an emotional response from Mildred’s friend when he reads “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold to her, literature might be dead to him, too. Truffaut seems to have had the same thought. In the end of his film adaptation, Montag and the rest of “the Book People” pace through a snow covered field unemotionally reciting his or her “book” over and over. Is there any meaning left?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

#7: The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester

“Eight, sir; seven, sir; six, sir; five, sir; four, sir; three, sir; two, sir; one! Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

As you probably know, the Hugo Awards are given to (mostly) science fiction works and are doled out every year at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), which is the oldest convention of its type. The award was named after Hugo Gernsback, a pulp publisher who all but created American science fiction. Hugo Award Winners are determined by the “members” of the Worldcon, and the awards, while prestigious, are generally considered to reward the more popular works out there since the voting body is mostly made up of fans, as opposed to the Nebula Awards, which are determined by writers. The first novel ever to receive the award was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man in 1953.

Bester (1913-1987) is a generally beloved writer in the science fiction community. He worked in almost every facet of the genre at some point, including radio and comic books. Bester is often credited with creating the Green Lantern Oath (say it with me: “In brightest day, in blackest night…”), though he pooh-poohed the credit later in life. While he didn’t produce many novels, both The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger, Tiger) are regarded by most folks foolish enough to put together a list of the best science fiction novels as two of the greatest works in the genre. So, not surprisingly, they both make David Pringle’s list.

The Demolished Man revolves around two main characters. One is Ben Reich, a powerful corporate businessman who runs an entity known as Monarch. The other is “Dishonest Abe” Lincoln Powell, a police prefect with powerful ESP abilities. ESP is at the heart of the novel, which is set in a future society where mental abilities of this type are common in a minority of the population (known as “peepers”). Peepers are part of every influential segment of society--most importantly law and law enforcement. For instance, peeping has basically eradicated premeditated murder…until Reich comes along. Reich wants to off his main competitor, a man named D’Courtney, because he refused to merge his company with Monarch when Reich’s back was to the business wall. Reich enlists the help of several individuals to help him, including a corrupt peeper, and he uses a repetitive, advertising-like jingle (see top quote) as a mental smokescreen to protect him from mind readers. This is all fine and good until a witness appears at the murder scene. And from there, the story moves into a decidedly noire direction, but with plenty of proto-cyberpunk imagery (a psychedelic brothel born from the heat of a vicious war for instance) and Freudian symbols thrown in (Reich is chased at night in his dreams by a man with no face). Powell becomes the main investigator of the murder, and he stops at nothing to bring Reich to society’s ultimate punishment--Demolition, a mental stripping of one’s personality.

I used to love TDM. I thought it was a fascinating journey into the mind, while also a revelation about the future possibilities of ESP and non-physical perception. Years later, it's not my favorite book anymore but I'd still highly recommend it to folks. Even if ESP doesn't thrill you (I'm right there with you), Bester knows how to entertain. He also pushes pulp writing in fascinating ways throughout the novel. For instance, when peepers gather together in social situations, their conversations are, of course, far from mundane. Bester represents these conversations graphically, showing how meaning is enhanced by the physical arrangement of words (basket weaves, musical notations, mathematic curves, etc.). And beyond all that, Tenser, said the Tensor…