Tag Archives: classic sf

… and call me Conrad

This immortal / Roger Zelazny

This immortal was originally published in a somewhat shorter, serialized form under the title “… and call me Conrad” which was apparently Zelazny’s preferred title for the work and may or may not be the title it is currently published under? Apparently the “complete” version wasn’t actually published until 1980. I read the 1974 Ace edition so there are (once again, apparently) about ten paragraphs that I didn’t get.

It’s been hard for me to find the right angle to approach this one from. This review will probably come across as more negative than this book warrants considering its publication history but so be it. I’ll just say for the record that I do like Zelazny’s work, including this book.

Also the aliens are from Vega so they are, naturally, referred to as “Vegans” which has great comedic potential.

Plot summary

Conrad Nomikos is apparently ageless and possibly a god. Conrad is ugly, clubfooted and with a face covered in some sort of fungal infection. The Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, the vast majority of the population has moved offplanet to serve as menial servants to the Vegan people. The Vegans are fascinated with how humanity has managed to destroy their planet and view the Earth as an intriguing holiday destination.

Years previously, Conrad was the leader of the Radpol movement, the center of the Returnist movement that attempted to convince human expatriates to return to their homeworld and used terrorism to prevent the Earth from being entirely turned into a tourist trap for the Vegans.

Now, Conrad has been charged with escorting the wealthy Vegan Cort Myshtigo on a research tour of prominent locations in human history. Myshtigo claims they are writing a book, but the current Radpol leadership sees Myshtigo’s trip as a fact-finding expedition to enable complete Vegan domination of the planet.

Continue reading … and call me Conrad

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Gateway

Gateway / Frederick Pohl

Since it’s the day after Christmas I’ve decided to feature a book about how we live in a desolate, dangerous universe where everyone you love will most likely die an arbitrary and meaningless death.

Yay!

Gateway is an interesting book to read in 2015. It has a lot of good and interesting ideas, but the plot is predicated on a psychological model that feels horribly outdated.

There are some other novels set in the same universe but so far Gateway is the only one I’ve read so I can’t really speak to its value as an entry point.

Plot summary

Robinette Broadhead, former worker in the “food mines” is rich and famous. After multiple successful interstellar journeys he has retired to Earth. Deeply traumatized by his experiences, he avails himself of a computerized therapist.

So how is it?

It’s very good but deeply flawed. Gateway’s portrayal of space exploration is fascinating. Interstellar travel is possible only via the use of alien craft of unknown origin. It’s not even known how to refuel the craft or even how to figure out how much fuel is remaining. The vast majority of expeditions find empty space or don’t return at all. It’s an enigmatic setting and the way Pohl tells an entire story without ever giving any real answers is masterful.

Fully half the novel consists of Broadhead’s therapy sessions. Broadhead is deeply suspicious of his AI therapist and the AI’s motives remain in question for the vast majority of the book. That might turn some readers off, but it follows the “alternating chapters in two timelines” approach that helps keep things fresh. Interspersed throughout are personal ads, lecture transcripts, and other “primary source” documents that do a great deal to illuminate the culture of Gateway and the background of the story itself without too much exposition.

But…

The biggest issue with Gateway is that it is, like all things, a product of its time. The core of the book is an exploration of Broadhead’s psychology. What that means is that some of the “explanations” we get later on are predicated on what are now largely discredited ideas about sexuality and psychological development. Published only two years after the APA statement that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and four years after the other APA removed homosexuality from the DSM, Gateway’s portrayal is fairly progressive but is deeply rooted in Freud’s theories on human development – theories that were 40 years out of date when Gateway was published.

I can appreciate Gateway for what it is but its reliance on an outdated theory of mind in a book featuring a high-tech future therapist breaks the immersion somewhat. It’s still a good book and one I enjoy but for that one thing.

This is an issue that happens frequently – see also the extremely 1950s social roles of Asimov’s The caves of steel. It’s not terrible but books like Stand on Zanzibar were able to portray a changing cultural landscape far more effectively.

Gateway is a book about exploration. The text itself is an exploration, both of Gateway and of Broadhead himself. The actual exploration that the characters themselves do is essentially meaningless and largely fruitless. It’s a book that paints a decidedly pessimistic picture of space exploration but for all its bleakness the book manages to avoid being depressing, on the whole.

Recommendation

Gateway is like Way station. It’s a book that I highly recommend to people looking for classics but otherwise I tend to stay away.

I’ve encountered a couple of essays lately about how young people today don’t read “the classics”. I think one of them was by Scalzi. Both of them presented complaining about how “kids these days” just don’t get “the classics” and how that’s somehow dumbing down the world of sf fandom. I’m glad, since it’s a ridiculous proposition and the reliance on using works 40+ years old to try and win new readers to the genre seems misguided at best. Sf is aggressively a product of its own time and in that light attempting to canonize some “golden age” and treat the genre like it needs to be experienced chronologically seems doomed to failure.

The point is I don’t think it’s a good idea to recommend anything older than 5-10 years when asked for generic recommendations, especially when it’s a recommendation for a young person. I could barely make it through Astronaut Jones in 1993; more than twenty years later the book has even less cultural relevance. I make partial exceptions for people who have actually lived through the era in question as they will generally have the first-hand experience of the cultural context necessary to truly get into the work.

To put it succinctly, as a rule generally avoid recommending books to people that are older than they are. The older the reader the more you can get away with bending that rule, and if you know the reader very well then obviously that knowledge should take precedence. There was one person I know, born in the 1990s, who refused to read any sf published after the mid-80s because they felt like more recent sf suffers from a “longer is better” mindset. They aren’t as restrictive now but that’s the type of person I recommend books like Gateway or Way station to.

Way station

Way Station / Clifford D. Simak

Way station is what happens when you write a pastoral science fiction novel set in the present [at time of writing] on Earth.

It’s most definitely not a novel about ray guns and spaceships and things that go boom, although pretty much all of those things are there. I’d compare it with This Immortal/Call me Conrad by Zelazny. It’s a book that takes the assumptions of golden age science fiction and inverts them in interesting ways.

Brief plot summary

A Confederate soldier is chosen by aliens to run Earth’s way station, a sort of highway rest stop for interstellar travelers. Only aging when he ventures into the outside world, he collects the stories of the aliens he encounters.

So how is it?

I really enjoyed it but it’s a book where not much happens. It’s a fairly quick read though and that saves it from being too boring.

Way station is a gentle novel. It’s about a guy who lives a lonely life, going for occasional walks but generally keeping to himself. There’s an overarching plot but it’s really not very important. The resolution of the plot itself is fairly underwhelming which would be a problem in another novel and will certainly disappoint readers looking for a golden age sf adventure story.

It’s a simple book with a big heart and as a horrible sentimentalist I like it for that. It’s about as far opposed to something like Wasp factory or The boys as it’s possible to get.

Recommendation

Way station is a book I recommend relatively often to specific people. It’s short and not very stressful, so it’s good for people who don’t want to have to invest a lot of time and effort into it. It’s very much an old school science fiction novel though so I generally only recommend it to people already looking for something in the genre.

I’ve found that many fans of old school sf haven’t actually read this one, so it’s also a fallback for those looking for classics they somehow missed.

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar / John Brunner. Originally published 1968.

Stand on Zanzibar is the Hugo award-winning novel of global politics in 2010. One of many late-60s and early-70s novels to present a decidedly pessimistic view of the United States in the 21st century, Stand on Zanzibar is possibly the most disturbingly prescient.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Stand on Zanzibar follows two roommates, Donald Hogan and Norman Niblock House. The world is overcrowded and is increasingly under the control of supercomputers that may or may not be self-aware. House is the vice president of a company that seeks to help modernize the quasi-fictional African nation of Beninia (The country now known as Benin was called Dahomey at the time the novel was written). Hogan is an undercover intelligence analyst who fears being forced into active duty. A scientific breakthrough in a fictional southeast Asian nation becomes cause for concern for the United States, and our heroes become more involved than they would perhaps like to be.

Continue reading Stand on Zanzibar

The space merchants

The space merchants / Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth. Originally published 1953.

The space merchants is the 1953 science fiction classic about an overpopulated, resource-starved future where rampant consumerism has caused advertising agencies to be the most powerful organizations in the world.

Brief plot description

(Spoiler free)

Mitch Courtenay is a high-powered advertising executive on a future Earth ruled by advertising agencies. Courtenay is assigned the task of creating an advertising campaign to recruit colonists for a colony on Venus.

Continue reading The space merchants

The left hand of darkness

The left hand of darkness /  Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published 1969.

Here is where things start to get interesting. The left hand of darkness is a classic, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and a groundbreaking novel in feminist science fiction. A 1998 Locus reader’s poll put it at number 2, just behind Dune, on the list of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. (Although Ringworld and the Foundation trilogy both made it to the top ten, which calls the accuracy of the entire list into question for me, but that’s a post for another time) Yale professor Harold Bloom even went so far as to include The left hand of darkness in his list of books comprising the Western Canon.

Brief plot description

(spoiler free)

Told in an epistolary format, The left hand of darkness follows Genly Ai, representative of a galaxy-spanning collective called the Ekumen. He arrives on the planet Winter (called Gethen in the local language) in an attempt to convince the locals to join the Ekumen and share their cultural and scientific knowledge with the other worlds in the collective. The inhabitants of Gethen are “ambisexual”, normally without a biological sex except during mating periods, where depending on their surroundings and relationships they develop male or female attributes.

Continue reading The left hand of darkness