Showing posts with label Science Fiction Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science Fiction Reviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: Dune, The Santaroga Barrier and The Green Brain By Frank Herbert

Here are three brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels for Dark Roasted Blend:


Without a doubt, Dune is a legend – as is Frank Herbert, its author. The book, and Herbert, has awards; and there’s the Dune movie, the Dune miniseries, the Dune games, The Dune sequel … and the sequel, sequel, sequel (five in all). It’s considered by many to be the most successful/popular science fiction to date.

Here’s the thing, though: is Dune really (or, "simply") science fiction?

Now don’t get me wrong, Dune is a fantastic, incredible novel: wildly imaginative, brilliantly plotted, amazingly told, and totally original. It also certainly has many speculative details: a far-far future settling, an alien world, genetic memory, and so forth.

But if you strip away a good percentage of those speculative ideas what remains behind could very easily be an excellent novel. The story of Dune really has less to do with the SF details and more with Herbert’s skill as a storyteller. Dune is a carefully crafted tale of politics and intrigue: the characters – from the Savior of Dune and the Fremen, Paul Atreides (aka Muad'Dib), to the Head of House Harkonnen, The Baron – are maneuvering and manipulating everything around them on a complex social chessboard. A great example of this is the famous banquet sequence where nothing is as it appears and every gesture and manner is a carefully planned strategic exercise.

Dune is also often called an early ‘ecological’ novel, meaning that Herbert addresses what’s now a pretty common theme: that nature is an essential – and very fragile – necessity. The Fremen are a perfect example of this: they live not on their desert world but with it, respecting it’s tremendous power as well as it’s precarious health. Again, if you take out the sandworms and the spice they create Dune could still stand as a powerful statement about the need for man to also live with this plant and not just use it up and toss it away.

There are many other elements in Dune that also could be taken away from the book’s far-future settling: the book’s exploration of Islamic culture (especially in relation to ecology), an examination of collapsing civilizations and decadence, and even a chance for Herbert to further look at the world through a zen lens.

In the end, it’s because Dune can stand without it’s science fiction elements that makes it such a great, and long-lasting, masterpiece. Herbert understood humans, even though he was setting their stage twenty thousand years from today, and understood nature, even though Dune is on another world. With Dune he created a perfect allegory, one that that speaks to the truth of humanity, and nature, today just as it did when it was written – and probably will for a very long time.

The Santaroga Barrier

Something’s odd about Santaroga: sure, on the surface it might appear to be like any other community full of normal-looking people, but look a little closer – like psychologist Gilbert Dasein is hired to do – and Santaroga begins to look anything but average.

For one thing the town is far from accepting of anyone who isn’t a local. They aren’t hostile, at least not openly, but if you weren’t born in their valley they won’t buy from you, trade with you, or accept you in any way: it’s the Santaroga barrier – and what’s beyond it makes for a totally original novel and a fantastic read.

Everyone knows Herbert for his Dune books but what a lot of people, unfortunately, don’t know about this Grand Master of science fiction is that he’s written, in my mind at least, even better novels – and the Santaroga Barrier is one of them. It’s also unfortunate that many people think science fiction has to have aliens, time travel, robots, and all those kinds of flashy, shiny, and far too-often grandiose concepts. What Herbert does in The Santaroga Barrier is show that science fiction can be based on a very simple idea, an idea that – when handled by a superb writer – can be more powerful and fascinating than anything flashy or shiny or grandiose.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Dr. Gilbert Dasein slams headfirst into the Santaroga Barrier, propelled by duty to his employers, his professional curiosity and by his own interests: a girl named Jenny who left him in Berkley, where she as a student and he a professor, to return to Santaroga.

One of the best elements of the story is a hauntingly slippery word that Dasein keeps hearing among the locals in relation to their lives and, especially, to their food: Jaspers. It takes him some time but eventually Dasein gets to see through the barrier, at the societal wall the Santarogans have put up around their town. What he sees is what makes the book to entrancing: Jaspers is a ‘consciousness fuel’ additive the locals have been culturing and using for generations. What it does, though, is create a unity among the citizens: a form of collective will.

But that’s not all: there’s something else beyond the barrier – a something else that’s killed everyone else who has tried investigating the town. Oh, sure, they might look like accidents but Dasein comes to realize that there’s nothing accidental about them, and if he doesn’t figure the puzzle out he might be next.

Okay, that’s a teaser of the plot, but there’s something else about The Santaroga Barrier that keeps this book on my ‘favorites’ shelf: Herbert’s superb skill as a writer. There’s something almost hallucinatory about the style of the book; it reads like a dream or a hallucination without resorting to overly flamboyant, pretentious language – a skill few had done well and only writers like Herbert mastered.

In the end, The Santaroga Barrier is a totally imaginative novel told with sparkling language and genius skill: the work of a master storyteller at the height of his game.

The Green Brain

Unfortunately, as with many other books by Frank Herbert, the fame and success of Dune has overshadowed The Green Brain: making it another book only hardcore Herbert fans even know about. This is really unfortunate because while The Green Brain is not Dune it shares a common theme -- as well as revealing more of Herbert’s masterful skill as a storyteller.

Herbert has often been called one of the first ‘ecological’ science fiction writers. True or not, his work definitely shows his concern about the health of the earth as well as man’s place in it. Dune explores that relationship, as does Hellstrom’s Hive, and – especially – does The Green Brain.

Set in a comfortable familiar future, The Green Brain is about a society in open war with nature – the jungle to be exact. Needing room to expand, the world has cut, carved, burned, poisoned and smashed its way into the heart of the wilderness. The characters in The Green Brain, for the most part, are soldier/exterminators fighting guerilla infestations of weeds, roots, seeds, animals and – especially – insects, all the while pushing their native habits towards extinction.

While Dune and Hellstrom’s Hive are more subtle about the ethical and moral issues surrounding man and his relationship to the environment, The Green Brain is deceptively simple: as man fights against nature, nature begins to evolve to terrifyingly fight back. ‘Deceptive’ because as with all of Herbert’s books even if the conflict is clear there are always other factors keep the story from becoming cartoonish.

One of the best things about The Green Brain is the excellently-presented idea of nature, and it’s evolving intelligence, as being alien yet familiar, like it’s a different side to the earth’s own mind – a different side that’s more than a little irked that humanity continues to be insanely stupid about not maintaining a respectful balance with it. Part of that anger, coupled with nature’s superb adaptability, comes out in the jungle’s new weapon: a collaborative hive of insects that excellently mimic what’s threatening them: us … human beings.

Yes, The Green Brain is not Dune but it’s still an excellent read and well worth picking up – as it everything else by Herbert. And, who knows, maybe you’ll start looking warily at insects … or people with very, very green eyes ….

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: Vacuum Flowers By Michael Swanwick and The Anubis Gates By Tim Powers

Here's another review of classic science fiction novels for Dark Roasted Blend:

There’s a lot of ways you could label Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick: cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, pre-transhuman, post-posthuman … and all those other silly labels pretentious science fiction reviewers and nit-picking analysts have been sticking on various books since the genre began to be taken -- or took itself -- too seriously.

But I have a better label for it. One I think says a lot more about this delightful book than any pre- or post- definition anyone could give it.

Sure, Vacuum Flowers does neatly fit into the cyberpunky domain (pre- or post- or whatever): set in an accessible where earth has been overrun by The Comprise, a voracious digital hive-mind, and the remaining free-will humans has escaped out into the solar system. The protagonist, Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark, begins the story like all good protagonists, as the subject of shadowy forces out to get something she possesses – and, naturally, what she isn’t exactly what she possesses.

But what makes Swanwick’s novel so wonderfully unique is that Rebel isn’t really Rebel. Originally a restless personality tester, someone who tries on artificial identities, she did the unthinkable and found a perfect one for her – Rebel’s – and stole it. See, in the post/pre (whatever) world of Vacuum Flowers personalities, memories, abilities, are as changeable as putting on, or taking off, make-up. In fact, Swanwick is credited by many as being one of the first creators of wetware, the idea of ‘painting on’ software to do just that.

And a lot of painting goes in Vacuum Flowers, but to Swanwick’s credit he takes this esoteric and possibly-confusing concept and makes it deceptively easy to understand, the book completely readable and totally enjoyable.

Just like the best of Alfred Bester, Swanwick is also deliciously and dazzling inventive, each page sparkling with memorable details and dazzling inventiveness: a blindly-focused quasi-communistic society dedicated to terraforming Mars, a renegade ‘mob boss’ who entertains himself by twisting the minds of his prisoner/guests, a multiple-personality ‘hero’ who has just the right mind for pretty much any job … Swanwick coolly and seductively brings the reader into Rebel’s kaleidoscopically fantastic, yet completely real-feeling world.

Yep, there are a lot of labels that could be tossed at Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers: post-this, post-that, transhuman, posthuman, cyberpunk ... whatever. The best label, though, and one that fits the novel so very well is one that every writer wants to get: A Really Good Book.

There’s a scene in The Anubis Gates that’s stayed with me ever since I first read it, some twenty or so years ago: our hero, Brendan Doyle, a professor at California State University Fullerton (one of my old alma maters, by the way), has found himself magically transported back to London in 1810.

Doyle, fascinated by a time he’s only read about, but also devastated that he’s trapped forever in the past, is walking through a street market when he hears someone whistling a tune, a song he suddenly realizes he knows.

The tune? “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

For me, that’s a special moment of brilliance in a novel packed full of all kinds of brilliances: a shivering little touch of perfect story-telling. One of the things I think is particularly excellent about the book is the way that Powers sort of restrains himself in his writing. Put it this way, if someone else were to write The Anubis Gates, especially these days, they’d have a tendency to make the book’s language too closely mirror the style and language of the time. But what Tim Powers does in The Anubis Gates is, instead, get to the basic – and fantastic – nature of a book from that time without resorting to overly-elaborate tricks.

The story-telling language in The Anubs Gates is the best kind of writing, smooth and seamless – infinitely readable and totally enjoyable.

But back to what makes The Anubis Gates so special. Like I said, what Powers has done is create an marvelously enjoyable book filled with the characters and details that feel like they’ve come from every Penny Dreadful and broadsheet from the 1800s: Horrabin, the nightmare clown and king of the London beggars; Jacky, the beggar who is actually the daughter of nobility on a quest for revenge; Amenophis Fikee, magician and leader of a gypsy clan cursed to become the body-thief Dog-Faced Joe, and so much more.

But The Anubis Gates is not just a playground for the author’s vivid imagination, for many real literary and historical celebrities also walk across the stage: Byron, publisher John Murray and many others. The world Powers creates – or just the past of the real world he plays in -- feels vivid, real, and always enjoyable.

In the end, the Anubis Gates remains a classically stylish and brightly imaginative novel told in a delightfully elegant way – an enjoyable read that feels timeless, which is quite an accomplishment for a book about time and travel.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Body Snatchers By Jack Finney

As previously mentioned here's another of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

The Body Snatchers (1955)
By Jack Finney

I am not writing this review. Sure, I might look like, sound like, act like, your regular reviewer but I am, in fact, a flawless reproduction .....

There's a very special kind of story out there and, ironically, it is unique and rare: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is one, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe is another -- and then there's Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers.

What makes these stories special? They are the beginning, a unique and fresh approach: Stevenson created the archetypal story of man's dual nature, Poe created the first detective story, and Finney created ... well, he created pod people.

It's hard in some ways to read Finney's book today. Not that it's not a good or even great book, because it's that and much more. Finney's restrained style is there, his wry sense of humor is there, his enviously lean prose is there, but if you'd never read The Body Snatchers and picked up a copy only today, you'd fail to see its incredible uniqueness against the now-ubiquitous theme. That's a shame because the world owes a lot to Finney's (deceptively) simple little book. For the first time, we saw the horror of a world growm cool and impersonal, distant and nightmarishly "the same."

So powerful is Finney's creation -- as well as the great 1956 film version directed by Don Siegel, starring Kevin McCarthy -- that even the tiniest glimpse of someone acting cold and remote, removed and distant, conjures up the entire idea of the book ... and, naturally, alien seed pods.

Alas, what a lot of people don't know about the book, as it was excised from every adaption of it, is that the aliens in the novel DO have emotions -- it's just that theirs are faked. That twist adds a whole new level of power to the novel: the impostors aren't just unemotional, they actually put a "face" on over their inhumanity -- which is a much more biting commentary than just the simple idea of a cold and drone-like inhumanity. Another horror of the book that's never been adapted is the idea that the pod-people can't reproduce. Once all of humanity has been replaced -- and the aliens have left for space again -- the earth will be left as nothing but a depopulated wasteland.

Again, the book really has to be savored, relished -- re-read again and again to appreciate Finney's sly genius. Just look at the characters. It would be easy to make Dr. Miles Bennell and Becky stand out, and so make the impostors more of a statement about conformity. Instead, they are anything but outraegous, which only adds to the chilling creeps when you realize that they, too, have been less than honest with their emotions, that they are too close -- far too close -- to the impostors in their emotional range, the depth of their feelings. Their fight almost feels like it's a battle against the end of the world, sure, but also to preserve the tiny, almost invisible contrast between the cold indifference of the invaders and the slightly-less-cold indifference of the real humans.

In the end, The Body Snatchers is a truly great book. The trick, though, is to read it for its uniqueness -- and not let all its subsequent impostors and imitators take away from its unique and special shine.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: A Double Dose of Robert Silverberg

As previously mentioned here's another of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

The World Inside (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Welcome to the year 2381. Things are perfect: very, very perfect. Everyone is happy, everyone is satisfied within the towering blocks of the Urban Monads -- monster monoliths of humanity towering hundreds of floors, and thousands of feet, above the surface of the planet.

If there is one rule, one overriding philosophy of the people living in the monads -- beyond their pathological satisfaction with the state of the world and their lives -- it’s “be fruitful and multiply.”

Each monad is made up of 25 cities, each existing within their own sections of 40 floors. Urban Monad 116, the setting of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, has a population of 800,000 happy, happy people, with the world population at 75 billion people … and climbing.

There have been many books about the horrors of overpopulation, most notably, Harry Harrison Make Room, Make Room, which you might know better as Soylent Green when it made it onto the big screen. But The World Inside is unique and powerful: a nightmare dipped in a super-sweet glaze, a hell made of smiles and sex. The residents of Urban Monad 116 -- the musician, the bureaucrat, the rebel, and all the other characters that rotate onto the novel’s stage -- don’t know they are living in a nightmare of bodies, bodies, and more bodies. For them, births -- and huge families -- are not just the norm but the ultimate desire of every citizen. To encourage this population explosion, the male residents roam their tower, falling into every available woman’s bed, each carnal encounter a possibility for -- joy, joy -- even more life.

The World Inside is, itself, a seduction. Because the reader follows each character, we first see their world as they see it: a bountiful celebration of humanity, a sensual monolithic rave. But then the glaze, the smiles, and the sex begin to wear thin for both the reader as well as the people of Urban Monad 116 we are following, and the book begins to show the horrifying isolation, the hollow monolith that is their building as well as their life.

As with everything Robert Silverberg has written, The World Inside is a literary treat: vivid and kaleidoscopic, richly textured but also smoothly told. It’s far too easy to read a book like The World Inside and forget the awe-inspiring literary skill and storytelling mastery that’s going on right before your eyes. The World Inside is a book that shouldn’t just be read but re-read and re-read and re-read: once for the pure enjoyment of this unique and powerful story, again to enjoy Silverberg’s magnificent talent as a writer, and yet again to enjoy the story's careful weaving of plot and story and theme.

The World Inside is a perfect example of a master storyteller’s craft: a timeless book and an eternal warning of substituting quantity for quality.

Born With The Dead (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Simple is hard: very, very hard. Not that complexity is, therefore, easy, but writing a story that's elegant yet lean, graceful yet subtly complex, lyrical yet spare -- that demonstrates the skill of a true master. A true master like Robert Silverberg. It's no wonder his Born With The Dead won the Nebula: the story is the absolute essence of a simple, powerful story told with true mastery of the storyteller's art.

The plot is pretty easy to explain. In the future (well, the 1990s ...according to the story) the recently dead can be reanimated, "rekindled" to use the term in the novella. The problem is that while they aren't dead, they aren't quite alive either: distant and removed, the resurrected live among themselves in Cold Towns, forming a whole population, an entire world, apart from the rest of still-alive humanity.

Having recently lost Sybille, his wife, Jorge is having a hard time adjusting to seeing her rekindled into an aloof and distant version of herself. A very hard time. In fact he begins to stalk her as she slips into the life of the reanimated dead. This is where Silverberg again shines: the world he creates, if just for the length of a novella, is rich and sensory, full of sparkling details woven with musically brilliant prose. Silverberg also manages, in the space of a few spare pages, to investigate and ponder the role of death in human society, as well as in various flavors of culture.

The ending of Born With The Dead comes almost too soon, but when it does come it arrives like a thunderclap. And like a thunderclap, when you think back on its arrival, you realize you saw it coming for a long time - a short journey of Jorge and Sybille makes for a perfectly executed story, a tight little package of character, theme, style. Born With The Dead is considered one of Silverberg's best works, and it's definitely worth to seek out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

At the Mountains of Madness By H. P. Lovecraft

As previously mentioned here's another of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

Talking about an H. P. Lovecraft book is -- to paraphrase that old chestnut -- like singing about food, or writing about music. What makes it doubly difficult is that so many others have tried: Lovecraft’s probably been analyzed and dissected more than any other fantasy author. So much so that a comprehensive review has also to mention every other review, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

But putting aside the difficulty of a review, and every other review, At the Mountains of Madness is still a brilliantly told horror story. Best of all, it’s almost a "perfect" Lovecraft story, combining everything that makes Lovecraft … well, ‘Lovecraftian:’ constant impending dread, mysteries beyond time and space, characters driven to the brink of -- and then beyond -- insanity, science knocking at the doors of the nightmarish unknown, and tantalizing clues to a star-and-time-spanning mythology.

Told by William Dyer, of Lovecraft’s ubiquitous Miskatonic U (“Go Pods!”), At the Mountains of Madness is about an expedition to Antarctica, which, in 1936, might as well have been the dark side of the moon. While there, Dyer and the other members of the expedition encounter various dreads and haunting mysteries (this is Lovecraft after all: specifics isn’t what he’s all about) until they discover an ancient city and with it, the horrifying secret of the Elder Things, the once-great-but-now-extinct terrifying rulers of time and space.

For a book written more than 70 years ago, At the Mountains of Madness still has a dreadful power. Like the tomes so often mentioned by Lovecraft, the novel crawls under the skin before twisting around the knots of the spine before working its way to the brain and then straight into the mind. Hallucinatory and haunting, the book reads more like a narrative nightmare than what most people think of when they think of a novel.

What’s particularly interesting about At the Mountains of Madness is how it forms a ‘bridge’ between Lovecraft’s mythology. Before it, his "horrors from beyond" were more mythological, but with At the Mountains of Madness he instead moves in a more science fictionlike direction -- a change many other reviewers have called extremely significant for his very long-lasting popularity.

Dream, nightmare, hallucination -- Lovecraft and especially At the Mountains of Madness might be hard to pin down, hard to quantify, but the work, and especially its author, remain truly great legends of horror, and not to be missed … if you want to lose sleep.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More Than Human By Theodore Sturgeon

As previously mentioned here's one of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on - or going up on - the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

More Than Human (1953)
By Theodore Sturgeon

A true, and very well deserved, science fiction classic, More Than Human is brilliantly original and, as with pretty much everything Theodore Sturgeon did, astoundingly well-written.

To detail what I mean by "brilliantly original," More Than Human is a series of novellas exploring the birth, and growth, of the next stage in human evolution. In the first novella we’re introduced to Lone, “the idiot” who is actually an incredible genius; Baby, whose mind functions like a computer; Bonnie and Beanie, who can teleport; and a young telekinetic girl named Janie. That’s great and all, but the brilliance and originality of Sturgeon’s masterpiece is that each of these people are not the single next step but all parts of one super-entity, a gestalt. There’s a problem with this new, emergent, being, however: it needs a conscience.

Sturgeon’s genius is throughout More than Human: the characters are engaging, never heavy-handed or simplistic; the science fiction elements are experiential and totally real-feeling, never embarrassingly melodramatic; and the story has a real impact because Sturgeon embraces a true understanding of humanity with all it’s glory as well as flaws, and so the book is never feels cheap or lazy.

More Than Human is one of those books that should be read by everyone, science fiction fan or not: it’s a true work of art.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Computer Connection

Here's a new classic science fiction review, this time for Alfred Bester's wonderful The Computer Connection.

This is a toughie - not because this isn’t a great book, or that it’s hard to define - but because it’s one of my all-time favorites. You know: ‘stuck on a desert island with only three books’ kind of favorite. That’s the tough, you see - I know why it’s a great book, the trick is trying to find a way to tell you, out there, how good it really is.

So ... let’s start with the basics: Alfred Bester, the legend. Winner of the first Hugo for "The Demolished Man", established Grand Master of SF with such ground breakers as "Fondly Fahrenheit", "The Stars My Destination", and - later - with "The Deceivers" and (you either loved it or hated it) "Golem 100". Bester is also a legend in the radio and comic world, having worked on scripts for Charley Chan, The Shadow, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern - in fact the Lantern Oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light") is Bester’s. Alfred was the original writer’s writer: he wrote for everyone, everywhere - but it’s his SF that he’s most known for.

For the longest time, the only place you could find Bester’s stuff was in the dusty halls of used book shops. Now you can pick up some of his best: "The Demolished Man", "The Stars My Destination", "Virtual Unrealities" (a collection of his marvelous short stories), "The Computer Connection", and even the book he left unfinished (and Roger Zelazny completed), "Psychoshop".

Even though his books are available it’s still sad that people don’t know Bester. Sigh. It’s especially disappointing when I hear people praise the stylistic endeavors of certain popular SF writers - when Bester blew them all away decades ago. As Harlan Ellison correctly states in his introduction to the "Computer Connection": “Bester was the mountain, all the rest of us merely climbers toward that peak.”

So what is it about Bester that just absolutely delights me? Well, man, you just have to be in the groove, capiche? You gotta plug in and ride the crazyhouse currents. Y? Y! Reading a Bester book is a trip, a stroboscopic madhouse of ideas, brilliant concepts, delightful characters, crackling language, and just plain fun. Now I don’t mean the kind of empty-headed fun you get nowadays - no, Bester’s fun is multi-language word play, obscure (but still understandable) references, and absolutely incredible, mind-boggling inventiveness.

Take, for example, "The Computer Connection" (also called "Extro" or "The Indian Giver"). In one blistering romp we have immortality, time-travel, cyberpunk (long before Gibson was born or computers got personal), cloning, an Amerinds nation in the toxic dump that was Lake Erie, characters like the nymphet Fee-5 Graumans Chinese (so named because she was born in the fifth row of the theater and is kinda of snotty about it), Dr. Sequoya Guess, a trip to Titan, a merging of man and computer, and, and, and ... overload!

Our hero is one Ned Curzon; a delightful fellow who’d been transformed into an immortal through an strange accident involving the explosive destruction of Krakatoa, and a member of an extended family of same eternal and eccentric folks: Nemo, Herb Wells, The Syndicate, Hillel the Jew, Borgia, Jacy (yes, that J.C.), Sam Pepys (not their realsies, you understand, just their ‘nom de years’). Ned, it seems, has been nicknamed Guigol (Guig for short), for his attempts to indoctrinate other people into their unique group. The problem, you see, is that to become immortal you have to go through a lot of terror and pain - and a lot of folks just don’t make it. Guigol as in Grand Guigol.

Then, right out of left field, the Group has a new member, the brilliant Amerid scientist Dr. Sequoya Guess - but an unforeseen side effect slipped into the immortality process as well, a side effect that has linked Guess to the Extro, the planet-wide system of intelligent machines and has given him incredible abilities and a lethal intent towards Guig and the members of his delightful group. As the back cover puts it: so how do you kill an immortal?

Stop, wait - I’ve sinned: you can’t describe a Bester book like you’d give a pitch for a block-buster flick. His ideas are mercurial: slippery and brilliant. Each page - no, each paragraph - sparkles with insane wit and crackling imagination. Now that trick - pyrokinetic writing - isn’t all that hard, but the miracle is that when Bester does this he also makes you care for these people. When characters get hurt, die, you might have only known them for a few lines, a few pages but - damnit - you feel the tears start. You really want to know these people, this glorious family of immortals and the various other folks that dance and cavort in any of Bester’s books. Bester was never a ‘hard’ SF writer - his science is as slippery and quick as his style - but then you don’t read his books to see if he crossed all his t’s or dotted his i’s ... no, you read Bester to take a wondrous trip, to be told a story by one of the few true masters of science fiction, of modern literature.

Well, I tried folks - tried my ever-lovin’ darnedest to pin down the beautiful brilliance of Alfred Bester. I gave it my best shot, trying to capsulize the effervescent, freeze-frame lightning. I guess there’s only one way to find out if I succeeded or not: go out - now - and pick up a copy of any of his books and see. It’s more than worth it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Cosmic Rape

As promised here's the first of my on-going classic science fiction reviews for the always great Dark Roasted Blend:

Good science fiction is fun to read. Great science fiction says something. Fantastic science fiction changes the way you think.

The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon is good, great, and – most of all – fantastic. Sturgeon’s writing is (as always) fun and engaging, the story addresses identity and individuality, and – best of all -- Sturgeon changes the way you’ll think about one of the most common science fiction bug-a-boos: the idea of collective consciousness, a human hive mind.

Originally published in Galaxy Magazine as a novella called To Marry Medusa, the Cosmic Rape is initially told through a series of characters, each one separated from everyone around them and the rest of the world by shame, miscommunication, guilt, fear, and inexperience. Paul Sanders is a empathy-less sexual opportunist, Guido is a teenage musical genius trapped by an abusive history into a life of violence against the music he subconsciously craves, Dimity Carmichael is a self-satisfied abstinent getting off on the sexual sufferings of others, Mbala is a tribesman fighting his own fears along with the demon stealing yams from his family’s scared patch, Henry is a boy living a life of unrelenting fear, and Sharon Brevix is a little girl lost in the middle of the desert.

Flowing, separately at first, between these characters is the skid-row loser Gurlick who just happened to have bitten into a discarded hamburger – a hamburger containing a scout seed from a galaxy-spanning hive mind called Medusa.

But Medusa has a problem: every other lifeform it’s absorbed into itself has been in some way a shade of its own collective consciousness. Humanity, though, is different: here everyone is separated and alone, disconnected and unique.

So, thinking that humanity must have been together at one time but then broke apart, Medusa the alcoholic out to find a way to "put people’s brains back together again" by promising the smashed-up and broken Gurlick whatever he wants.

Like everything of Sturgeon’s, The Cosmic Rape is brilliantly written: the characters are rich and full and alive, the language is equal parts lyrical, poetic, and carefully structured and classical. Also like everything else of Sturgeon’s, the story is bright and clear, a sneaky trick that takes you completely by surprise without ever resorting to cheap devices.

Here too are Sturgeon’s favorite subjects: the explosion of what is sex and sexuality (as in Venus Plus X), the careful and perceptive look at humanity (as in Godbody) and especially the reinvention of what consciousness is and could be (as in More Than Human).

There is a part of The Cosmic Rape that lays it all out: the fun reading, the perfect ‘something’ that great science fiction has, and especially the way Sturgeon changes how we think but I won’t just excerpt it here because that would be … well, wrong. Like – maybe, just maybe overdoing it a bit -- pasting in Michelangelo’s God Creates Adam without the whole of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. You have to read it yourself, but to give you an idea of what happens in that chapter, as well as the whole conclusion of the book, just think about the idea of a hive mind, a united human consciousness.

It’s an old science fiction cliché, from Star Trek’s borg to the Flood of Halo: "resistance was futile" and all that. Lots of folks lay awake at night and shudder at the thought of being merged, combined with something else, of losing their identity to some monstrous and hungry collective. But what Sturgeon did with The Cosmic Rape is to take that idea and twist it, turn it upside down and make it not hideous and frightening but warm, welcoming and wonderful: a humanity without judgment or fear, loneliness or shame, a united mankind of acceptance and understanding.

I can’t recommend The Cosmic Rape enough. It's fun to read like all good science fiction, it says something important like all great science fiction, but best of all it’s fantastic because Sturgeon manages to change the clichéd terror of a collective humanity into something that, like the book itself, is brilliant and wonderful.