Archive for June, 2009

C.J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station

Posted in books, sf on June 26, 2009 by Matt

C. J. Cherry‘s Downbelow Station is old enough to be safely called a “classic”. It won the Hugo for best novel in 1982. According to Wikipedia, Locus Magazine in 1987 considered it among the top 50 science fiction novels of all time. Recently, maybe obscured by the bulk of its sequels, the book doesn’t seem to get quite that level of adulation. The Guardians recent 1000 Must-Read Novels list contained maybe 140 SF books and left this one out, though they included a few more recent novels (for example, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) that I don’t expect will stand the test of time as well as Cherryh’s.

It is probably those sequels that have kept me from reading this for so long. I’ve been aware of the book, and seen it recommended, for probably 15 years. But I’ve never felt I could spare the decade I’d need to read it and its more than 20(!) sequels.

The book starts with a long-view history of space exploration by the commercially motivated Earth Company and the founding of various stations colonies, leading to the point where the colonies surpass the homeworld in technology, and become divorced from it in culture. Finally the Beyond forms its own government, called Union, and rebels against the Company. Years later, the central story starts as the Earth space fleet is reduced to a few harried ships, and Union is on the brink of taking over all the known worlds.

The story involves the Union advance on Pell’s World, the closest station to Earth, and one of very few (maybe only two) to be in a system that also contains an inhabited planet. Multiple factions vie for control of the station, and most of them are ruthless enough to destroy the station if that’s the only way to keep it out of the hands of their rivals. Refugees from other recently captured or destroyed stations crowd Pell’s, creating an extra set of problems for Pell’s more benevolent leaders who are the most sympathetic characters we see. Frustratingly, the story basically ends in a stand-off, brokered by the space merchant (“merchanters”) faction, creating a balance of power that presumably sets the stage for all those sequels.

On the other hand, what the novel has going for it is an intense pace that kept me engaged throughout. By keeping each chapter focussed on the viewpoint of one character, we appreciate the motivations of even the least sympathetic characters. There are few villains here, aside from a clan of self-serving Pell aristocrats who are only minor players in the multi-sided conflict between Union, Company, fleet, station, and merchanters. And for the more appealing characters, the focussed narration creates a strong identification with their difficulties and moral dilemmas.

I don’t know of another author who can match Cherryh’s combination of characterization and intense narrative. Richard K. Morgan delivers a wilder roller-coaster ride of a story, but builds it mostly on explicit violence and cardboard characters. Neal Stephenson can also combine an intense story and interesting characters, but his intensity always seems to come somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Cherryh’s narrative rarely takes a break for humor, keeping a relatively serious tone, even if her themes are perhaps not earthshakingly weighty.

Overall, an enjoyable read, and well worth the time spent, especially for the experience of Cherryh’s unique narrative voice.

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Alexei Panshin, Rite of Passage

Posted in books, sf on June 16, 2009 by Matt

This 1968 novel was Panshin‘s first, and it won the Nebula Award for best novel, topping the better-remembered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Stand on Zanzibar.

The novel is about Mia Havero, a girl approaching adulthood aboard an interstellar Ship. The Ship, and several others, were originally built to carry colonists from a dying Earth to other planets, but are now largely empty, carrying only their crews of a few ten thousands between the stars. The Ship crew society, in order to maintain its fitness, requires each child to survive a one month stay on one of the colony planets before s/he becomes an adult. This “Trial” is the pivotal event of a child’s life, and Mia’s personal development as she nears her Trial, and more dramatic events of Trial, form the central plot of the book.

The flow of the novel is something like Heinlein; much of the story focusses on everyday events, or at least events that the characters consider as everyday events, but there is a strong moral theme always just below the surface, sometimes in plain view, and occasionally delivered with the subtlety of a kick in the head. Panshin’s novel doesn’t have the same readability as most of Heinlein’s, and Mia’s internal voice and her young friends’ dialog is particularly wooden, making them sound as if they are being raised in an especially class-conscious corner of 1960’s America.

The structural parallel, and the differences in Panshin’s moral themes to Heinlein’s are entirely intentional, and Panshin has written a long and fascinating essay on how the novel developed in response to changes he saw in Heinlein’s work in the post-World War II time period. Panshin very explicitly sets up an examination of various ethical philosophies, even having Mia write a comparative essay on them so that she can expostulate on their various merits.

A separate preoccupation of the book, at most indirectly connected to Heinlein, is overpopulation. This seems to have been a major theme of the times, for example in John Brunner’s competing Nebula nominee Stand on Zanzibar. In Panshin’s novel the Earth was destroyed by overpopulation (or by a final war universally acknowledged to be instigated by overpopulation) and the characters therefore consider unconstrained reproduction to be inherently sinful. This condemnation extends even to colony planet with only a few million inhabitants, and is one of the few moral standards that Mia (and by extension the author) accepts without critical examination. The space travellers overlook the possibility that a certain population level may be beneficial to enable technological advance (or else they, and Panshin, outright deny it, because their ship of around 25,000 people is apparently technologically self-sustaining). They then look down on the colonists for their backward technology and primitive lifestyle.

On the whole this was a very strong read, though more for its thoughtful and nuanced consideration of multiple ethical points than for stylistic accomplishments.

Maureen F. McHugh, China Mountain Zhang

Posted in books, sf with tags on June 7, 2009 by Matt

I remember a huge buzz when Maureen McHugh‘s China Mountain Zhang was first published. But that was 16 years ago, and somehow I never got around to reading the book until now.

The story is mainly about Zhong Shan (“China Mountain”) Zhang, also known as Rafael Luis Zhang, a mixed-race American in the not-so-distant future. America has become a communist country in the orbit of world-dominating power China. McHugh’s experience teaching in China in the ’80s allows her to develop a truly compelling China-centric world. The plot of the story is subtle, focussing on Zhang’s coming to terms with his place in the world, with a few other character threads intertwined. Some other reviewers (see below) found this lack of dynamic action uncompelling (“almost boring”) but I found it a refreshing change from run of the mill SF, and also that it gave the author an opportunity for more complete world-building, down to very fine points of Chinese culture that might assert themselves in this future.

The main point of tension in the book is Zhang’s position as an outsider, as a Chinese-american in America, as an American in China, and as a gay man. If I have one small criticism of the book, its that Zhang is also introduced as half Puerto Rican, layering on one more way for him to be an outsider, but his latino side is not developed much, so that when it is mentioned it becomes something of a distraction, and doesn’t add as much as it could to our understanding of Zhang’s character.

Of course, the book is not just a speculation about the future, but also a way for McHugh to inform western readers about the Chinese culture she saw first hand; so we should look at whether the last 16 years of rapid changes in China have dated the book beyond relevance. For one, the cultural-political rhetoric described in the book, such as the “Cleansing Winds Campaign”, seem to have gone from today’s China, but its not hard to imagine their return in the event of serious economic upheavals. Otherwise, the Chinese cultural references in the book, like the importance of guanxi to success in Chinese culture, are mostly Chinese universals, aspects of Chinese culture that don’t depend on a particular government or economic structure, and we see them today in the PRC, Taiwan, and in other Chinese communities like Singapore and Los Angeles, so it remains perfectly reasonable to imagine their continuing for another 200 years into a world where China is the dominant world power.

One passage that might have seemed like a clumsy infodump to those who read the book years ago has suddenly become an indicator of startling prescience from McHugh. For most of the book the history that led to a sinofied USA is kept hazy. But late in the story, Zhang has completed his engineering degree and is teaching at a New York City college. At a loss for material to fill his first lecture, he explains the origins of the American proletarian revolution:

In the early twenty-first century, the national debt and the trade deficit of the old United States precipitated the second depression. In effect the country went bankrupt, and as a result, so did the economy of every first-world nation at the time except for Japan, which managed to keep from total bankruptcy but lost most of its markets, and for Canada and Australia, … The Soviet Union also went into bankruptcy because it was deeply invested in the U.S. bond market, whatever that was.

McHugh might have mis-predicted the part where China becomes so dependent on the US export market (and so deeply invested in the U.S. bond market) that it can’t afford let it go bankrupt, but otherwise this is a fairly accurate description of what a lot of people seem to think has been going on for the last year or so.

So China Mountain Zhang is an excellent world-building and character development novel. It explores a speculative future on a deeper cultural level (rather than just technological) than most SF. And even after 16 years, its speculations are still believable, even if they might not be quite as probable as they were when written. An overall excellent book.

Other reviews at Slashdot, Special Circumstances, The Cultural Gutter, Omphalos’

Gordon R. Dickson, Naked to the Stars

Posted in books, sf with tags on June 1, 2009 by Matt

I haven’t previously been a huge fan of Gordon Dickson. I found what I’ve read of his stuff to carry an atmosphere of 1970’s space opera that is entertaining but not something I would read continually, or even once every year. The main appeal was a kind of nostalgia for the time, roughly in junior high school, when I used to play the Traveller tabletop RPG, which cribbed most of its setting and backstory from Asimov’s Foundation, but got its atmosphere, as I imagine, from Dickson’s Dorsai sequence.

I found Naked to the Stars at a library fundraiser sale and decided to give it a go, and it turned out to be a great choice. This is much more thoughtful novel than I remember of other Dickson.

The story follows Cal Truant, a footsoldier in the Combat Services of an expansionist human interstellar government. During one engagement, Cal blacks out, and this event leads to his discharge from the Services. Not comfortable as a civilian, Cal joins the Contact Services, an unarmed service arm responsible for making up with conquered peoples after the fighting is over. This confronts him with his father’s pacifist beliefs, in rebellion against which he joined the Services to begin with.

The book does show its age. The hyper-competent protagonist, the relatively unimaginative alien species, and the only female character appearing as a love interest all date the novel. A very straightforward, unembellished style also date the writing, but allows a whole lot of story to be fit into a 160-page book. Despite all this, there is str0ng character development in the protagonist at least, in fact Cal’s coming to terms with his father’s pacifism is the central story, so that its hard to remember that this book predates, say, The Forever War, by 10 years.

Overall, this was an excellent book, and its convinced me I ought to be reading much more Gordon Dickson than I have been.