Archive for October, 2009

Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany

Posted in books, sf with tags , on October 29, 2009 by Matt

Continuing what has turned into a recent tour of the New Wave, I come to Babel-17. This novel first appeared in 1966. It won the Nebula in ’66 and was short-listed for the Hugo award in 1967.

Robert at The Valve was dissappointed by this novel; he writes that this book is representative of award winners that represent the mediocre mainstream rather than the greatest potential of art. I can’t support this argument. Considering that Babel-17 was in contention against a Heinlein novel, in only the second year of the Nebula awards, it shows a substantial bias towards art over popularity that the Nebula voters chose the Delany novel (in a tie with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon).

It’s true that the novel has dated itself somewhat. Its main theme is an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Wikipedia) that language strongly limits thought. More recent linguistic thought has all but rejected Sapir-Whorf, more or less nullifying the premise of Babel-17. But remember, the premise could be recast with the word “language” replaced by “memes” and it would have seemed current into the ’90’s.

And anyway, the novel does still have something to offer. For one, the first half or so of the book is a long sequence in which the heroine, Rydra Wong, is searching out a crew for her starship amongst the Transport community, who’s habits are somewhat wild, to say the least. She’s accompanied by a Customs officer, clearly representing mainstream and “straight” (in every sense) culture. The interaction is a direct comment on what 1960’s mainstream American culture had to learn from the various peripheral subcultures around it, and it’s still valid today.

The second half of the book brings the Sapir-Whorf premise more into play, as Wong takes her starship and crew out to find the source of a mysterious language that has been recorded in radio transmissions preceding various attacks on the Alliance government. This section also reflects a bit of the 1960’s SF’s romantic infatuation with the aristocracy, another feature that dates the novel. Nonetheless, the later part of the book does develop an action-oriented plot, without sacrificing Delany’s poetic writing style.

Given Delany’s style, and apt social commentary, Babel-17 is still well worth reading, even if other aspects of the book have aged in the 43 years since the original publication.

Anathem, Neal Stephenson

Posted in books, sf on October 22, 2009 by Matt

I finally broke down and read this 900-page monster. Of course, it was worth it.

One of my first impressions was that the book reminds me of nothing so much as James Clavell’s Shogun, where the enjoyment is partly the sense of accomplishment from learning a heap of Japanese words (just checking Wikipedia I was surprised to find that Anathem doesn’t just share its excessive page count and foreign vocabulary with Shogun, but also the name Erasmus, the protagonist in Anathem and the hero’s ship in Shogun). Stephenson got to make up his own language to pick out some indicative vocabulary words to salt his book with. So we get “saunts” (instead of saints) living in “concents” (instead of convents) and the variations in the words do tell you something about the world where the action is played out, and give a feeling of richness to the imaginary world.

Certainly the action is a bit abstruse, and spread rather thin through those 900 pages. It would be fair to say the book is unbalanced, favoring world-building above character and plot development. But Stephenson’s genius is that he can make a story about a bunch of monkish philosophers sitting around a table discussing the fine points of Platonic Idealism (excuse me, “the Hylaean Theoric World”; luckily there’s a glossary so I don’t have to look far to get the spelling of these things) into a page-turner. This book is probably 60% infodump, but I didn’t resent it.

Other reviews of Anathem:

Edward Teller, the Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild

Posted in books, history, history of technology with tags , on October 17, 2009 by Matt

Edward Teller is a giant in the history of the 20th Century. He is a central figure in the story of the Physicists coming down from the ivory tower to create the weapons that defined the second half of the century as the “atomic age”. Teller is maybe most commonly examined as an antagonist in the epic and theatrical tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer (about which, more someday…), and his attitude does reflect a contrary view to Oppenheimer’s, but his influence continued long after Oppenheimer was pushed off the stage.

Teller began his career as a brilliant physicist who collaborated with many of the early investigators of quantum mechanics, and contributing a couple of key results himself. Pushed out of Europe by the anti-semitism of the ’30’s, he came to the U.S., and when war came, he naturally and enthusiastically joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.

In the Manhattan Project, Teller was somewhat sidelined because he hoped to bypass fission weapons and begin developing a fusion weapon (the H-bomb, or “super”) immediately. After the war he continued to work on the H-bomb project, although conflicts with his former colleagues at Los Alamos led him to push for the creation of the new national lab at Livermore, which he joined. Later in his career he became a political advocate for weapons research, weapons testing, and later for the SDI or “Star Wars” defense system created under Ronald Reagan.

This biography paints a portrait of a genius, committed to the security of his adopted country, but with two great flaws. Goodchild is really only explicit about describing the first of these, but he might have had both in mind as he draws together multiple threads of Teller’s life to demonstrate them both.

Continue reading

Interzone 224

Posted in magazines, sf with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2009 by Matt

“Sublimation angels”, Jason Sanford A small human colony scrapes out a meager existence on a one of the most inhospitable planets imaginable. Eur is so cold its atmosphere has frozen into a global ice sheet, in which the colonists have burrowed their cave home. In the lower depths of the cave, the air is sour and lacking oxygen, while in the upper regions the air is sweet. At the top of their society are the brutal “moms”, and at the bottom are the “low kids”, near starvation and short on breathable air. At the top of the heap is Big Mom, an AI transformed to human form to run the colony.

Sanford has recently labelled an ongoing “movement” in SF writing with the name SciFi Strange. This story may be (deliberately?) an exemplar of the style. First for its unflinching description of the painful realities of life with limited resources under the control of arbitrary and gruesome authority, a theme easily found in the New Weird that Sanford cites as a major influence on SciFi Strange.

Also in an ending that leaves some of the major questions opened in the story unanswered (What motivates the AI overlords and the Aurals, for example). That kind of unrevelatory ending is one of the marks of SciFi Strange that Sanford doesn’t mention himself, but it does strike me as characteristic of many of the writers he names in the SciFi Strange family. To me its something where the author is walking a fine line between leading the reader to come up with answers for themselves, and leaving the reader confused and feeling short-changed. Here, Sanford just manages to keep me engaged with a few ideas of what he’s getting at, but not a complete grasp of it.

Although I found myself infuriated (well, mildly infuriated, anyway, if that’s possible) at points by the pessimism of the view of the future of human society presented here, I can’t deny it’s true to human nature, and you can’t beat a story that triggers real emotion like that.

Read the rest of the reviews for this issue.