Tag Archives: 1970s

DYING INSIDE – Robert Silverberg (1972)

dying-insideOkay, first things first: Dying Inside is not really a scifi book. It’s a rather small story about David Selig, living in the second half of 20th century America. Selig can read minds – only he and one other guy he meets can do this – and his power is diminishing. That’s it. No speculative science, no future worlds, no space stuff, nothing, just one guy who inexplicably can read minds. That’s not a negative, it’s just something candidate readers should know.

Dying Inside easily fits in with earlier scifi, taking mental powers seriously – just like books as diverse as Foundation And Empire (1952), Childhood’s End (1953), The Demolished Man (1953), More Than Human (1953), The Santaroga Barrier (1968) or The Lathe Of Heaven (1971).

In a way, Dying Inside is the most pure of all those: Silverberg doesn’t give justifications for Selig’s powers, there’s no paranormal scientific framework, no Freudian veneer, no nothing. Selig’s powers are a coincidence. On the surface level, it’s just a character study of a speculative character losing his mutant mental power. On top of that, Selig doesn’t do anything spectacular with his powers. He doesn’t try to make money out of it, there’s no action, no mystery plot, no sleuthing. So, space opera fans should look elsewhere for their dose of entertainment.

All these caveats aside: I liked Dying Inside. Why? What’s a way to approach and appreciate this novel? I don’t care much for the approach of Michael Dirda – Washington Post book critic – who points to the easily recognized surface metaphor: yes, Dying Inside is about a character realizing he will die someday, “a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age”. I don’t feel Silverberg has particularly interesting or profound things to say about that shock. So, another approach maybe? Continue reading

WHIPPING STAR – Frank Herbert (1970)

whipping-starI can’t explain how I feel about this book without this first paragraph. There are minor spoilers in it, but nearly all of them are made pretty clear early on in the novel. Whipping Star‘s plot more or less boils down to this: a sadistic, psychotic woman with vast amounts of wealth – who was obliged to undergo conditioning so she wouldn’t be able to tolerate seeing pain in others anymore – has her minions nonetheless whip (with an actual bullwhip) a godlike alien (visible to humans as a small star the size of a big football & the shape of a spoon) that has the power to transport everything across space & time in the blink of an eye. Our villain can do this because the alien shows no feelings of pain. The alien lets her do this because it willingly entered a contract with her: being whipped in exchange for knowledge about humanity. However, in the very near future, the alien (that calls itself Fanny Mae!) will die because of the whippings, and when it dies, it will cause all other sentient beings – including humanity and a host of other aliens – to die instantly. There’s a kind of government agent trying to solve the problem, but the alien has hidden the sadistic women on some planet in another dimension as part of the contract.

Well – and you thought giant sandworms were odd.

Continue reading

THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.


Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

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THE FOREVER WAR – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever WarThe Forever War is generally thought of as a SF-classic with everlasting appeal. Not only a SF-classic, but even a straight out American classic of literature. 3 different quotes on my edition rave in one way or the other about the book being up there with the big boys of non-genre, non-pulp literature: “the most important war novel written since Vietnam”.

I disagree. It’s not that the book hasn’t aged well: it hasn’t, but that’s not its problem. I never felt it being a very good book, and I think it never has been. It is not without merit, there’s excellent parts, but overall there’s not enough meat on the bone. It works as an allegory, but not as a story. Moreover, its ethics are pathetically superficial: a pretty spectacular fail, especially for an indicting war novel. More on that later, also in the comments.

I guess most SF-fans know that Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, and that The Forever War actually is about the Vietnam war – it is even considered a critique of that war; in the introduction Haldeman recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. It’s a personal book: the protagonist’s name, William Mandela, clearly is an anagram of Haldeman.

So, what’s the good here?

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THE LATHE OF HEAVEN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

Lathe Of HeavenI came to this with high expectations, since I loved The Left Hand of Darkness, and I loved all the interviews and talks with Le Guin I’ve read or seen. This short book seems almost universally loved by the reviewing community too, and many people report that there is lots of food for deep thought in it.

For sure Le Guin has a vivid imagination, spelled out in beautiful prose. There’s great lines to be found throughout the 182 pages.

Do you feel you relate satisfactorily to other people, that you have a niche in the emotional ecology of your environment?

Or

Darkness lay softly on the bare pine floor, unpolished, unswept. George Orr lay down in that mild darkness, full length, face down, the smell of the dusty wooden floor in his nostrils, the hardness of it upholding his body.

But I’m sad to say The Lathe Of Heaven left me frustrated by its sloppy content. The entire book reads like a rant against utilitarianism, Malthusianism and the likes. The story is set in a more or less dystopian 2002, wherein the protagonist George Orr discovers that his dreams can literally transform reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, cannot resist using George’s powers to change the overcrowded world into a better place. Of course, predictably, things don’t turn out for the better – classic King Midas, like W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw.

The entire book seems to be written to advocate non-intervention, in favor a more Eastern way of thinking, with quotes by Chuang Tse, a tao master, sprinkled throughout the book.

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

There is a lot to be said for Acceptance as a way of being, and my beef is not with Taoism. My beef is with a few false dichotomies Le Guin introduces, and a caricatural treatment of utilitarian, pragmatic politics.  Continue reading

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA – Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

Rendezvous With RamaAs a reviewer on Worlds Without End pointed out, this book is a bit of a mystery story. But, as a reader you can’t really participate in unraveling the mystery, you just have to follow Clarke’s lead. It’s an interesting world at first, with a real sense of wonder, but after about 150 pages it begins to drag, just because there’s no real story here, no character development, etc., just one short chapter after another of exploring the big mysterious cylinder. So after a while, the book’s narrative shallowness starts to hinder the pleasure of exploring. The stale writing doesn’t help either. It does pick up pace a bit for the final 5th of the novel, but ultimately doesn’t deliver, with a disappointing ending. Clarke is not a straight out horrible writer though: Rama is filled with some original, well thought out things, and the meetings of a council on Earth – monitoring the discovery – is a clever narrative device, that helps further the story with exposition that doesn’t feel forced at all.

Rendezvous is only 250 pages in a pocket edition, and since it’s a linear story without any complexity, it’s a quick read. As this is apparently one of the prime examples of a book about a Big Dumb Object, it’s a pretty interesting, non-demanding read for those interested in the history of SF. It’s also much better than that other classic BDO-story, Ringworld, and a lot more hard SF too. Still, I have to recommend Bank’s Excession for a really, really exciting BDO-book, with real characters, a thrilling story, grit, humor, and vivid writing. It just goes to show how relative winning 5 awards is.

originally written on the 25th of March, 2015

RINGWORLD – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld

NO SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

This book is considered Hard SF, and I can understand why, but to me Ringworld feels more as Sesame Street SF. I feel that if one wants to write Hard SF, the social science part of the science has to check out as well – for human societies and alien societies alike. Yet, in this book the characters are caricatures, and the aliens are just odd (orange fur and a ratlike tail!) and different (two heads! 3 legs!), but not alien, since they are just versions of human stereotypes (aggressive brutes, smart cowards).

Niven’s vision of future humanity is far off anything really conceivably possible, and falls flat on its face because of details that seem cute or original at first, but in the end just expose Niven as a very superficial social thinker: in the book, individual humans enter voluntarily into televised battles to the death, just for the right to have three children? Yet, everybody is allowed 1 child, without the need to risk death at all. What sane person would do that?

It’s not only the social science that’s lacking, it’s also basic scientific concepts. A supposedly highly advanced alien species that can move planets does believe in breeding for luck: a human character whose 5 ancestors all had luck in some lottery must be a “lucky” character, and solely for that reason is selected for a highly dangerous expedition. Really? This is considered Hard SF? Any scientist will tell you chance theory and math work differently. People knew this in the 70ies, and highly advanced aliens that can move planets will know too.

Anyhow, I was bored after 10 pages, and after a couple more I felt annoyed by the shallow characterization, the shallow science, the shallow prose and the shallow dialogue. I continued until page 110, over one third of the book, but things didn’t change, the occasional fun idea or mildly interesting observation notwithstanding. I read a summary online for the remainder of the story, and judged by that it became even goofier, so I’m glad I cut my losses.

Worthwhile from a historical stance, but otherwise a waste of my time, and yet another lesson not all classics age well. I can understand why this became a classic though: the concept itself of a “ringworld” still has merit in SF, and lots of people are easily fooled by surface details.

originally written on the 7th of February, 2015