Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Readings 2K9: Vulcan!

by Kathleen Sky

Well, this is certainly a Star Trek novel from the 70s. It’s not as weird as some; you don’t have the Klingon Empire locked in a slow-time field by irate cosmic entities, for example. In fact, by those standards, the book’s positively sedate. The borders of the Romulan Neutral Zone are shifting, and the Federation’s about to lose a claimed but only partially-explored planet; it’s not clear whether the inhabitants are sentient, and the crew of the Enterprise has to figure it out before the Romulans take over. The xenobiologist who comes on board to do so is ...

... Okay, well. Katalya Tremain is “not beautiful, but well proportioned.” Her uniform “fit perfectly over her small waist and hips and the curves of her full bosom. Her eyes were dark, warm as forest pools struck by sunlight,” and so forth. Although age thirty-five, “she looked as though she might be twenty, at most.” So all this, plus her genius-level intellect, explains why both McCoy and Spock fall instantly in love with her (Kirk? He’s actually the model of professionalism and decorum). Ah, but, she is violently prejudiced against Vulcans. So, inevitably, when the time comes to beam down to the mysterious planet, it’ll be her and Spock in the landing party ... and the rest of the party gets killed ... and the two of them must work together to learn the nature of the planet’s inhabitants before they’re all lost to the Romulans.

There are some cute ideas here — notably, a past-his-prime Romulan commander who freaks out when he learns that the Federation starship he’s dealing with is commanded by the fearsome Captain James Kirk — but then there’s also the occasional terrible bit of writing: “Professionalism was warring with his gonads, and it was going to be a neck-and-neck race as to which side won,” we’re told at one point, which, as mixed metaphors go, is really pretty ugly and only gets uglier the more you think about it. The “he” in that sentence is McCoy, who acts as Tremain’s therapist when she comes on board the Enterprise, giving her drugs to increase her suggestiveness while openly hitting on her. They did things differently in the twenty-third century, once upon a time.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the fact that when I was younger, between the ages of, oh, let’s say ten and fifteen or thereabouts, I read a ton of these Star Trek books. As far as I can make out, looking at the Wikipedia lists of novels, probably a few dozen. Now, at that time, the early to mid 1980s, there were only 79 episodes of one TV series, plus the occasional movie and a few comics. I was young enough that the idea of ‘canon’ meant little or nothing to me. The point being, books like these meant Trek to me at least as much as the actual show did. This sort of writing, in a kind of penumbra between fanzines and “real” sf novels, not only kept the world and what we now call “franchise” alive, but also to some extent built up and shaped the characters and ideas of the original show.

Nowadays, of course, everything's different. I read (or perhaps reread; my memory for thirty-year-old Star Trek novels is not so great) this book at about the same time I saw the new film. It’s interesting to compare the two. Obviously, there are some surface similarities which may come out of long-standing desires to do certain things with the characters — you know how Spock is fundamentally rational and represses his emotions so strongly nobody ever sees them except under life-or-death stress? That notion is not operative in either the book or the movie, exactly — but the thing that strikes me is the difference between them. The new Star Trek film takes the surface structure of Trek and fits it into a Hollywood action-adventure film: lots of special effects, quick editing to create the illusion of intelligence, hand-waved science, a female character who does nothing particularly significant except be a lust-object for male characters, a fast-talking guy with a funny accent for comic relief (pardon me, two fast-talking guys with funny accents), a few vague nods in the direction of a theme which is abandoned once the action gets underway, and above all a bad guy who is thoroughly bad and cannot be negotiated with and is in the movie only to be blown up. Vulcan!, for all its sins, is actually smarter than that. As noted, the Romulans have actual personalities and motivations. There’s some kind of communication between them and the Enterprise. There’s even an attempt, however poorly-executed or heavy-handed, at character growth. A mind-meld scene late in the book actually tries to develop a sense of wonder.

This is not to say that I enjoyed the book more than the movie. It’s just to note that, while it may be bad, it gets something right. I don’t just mean that it gets something right in its approach to Trek; sure, it’s closer in spirit to the original show, but then it’s also closer in time, meaning both that there were fewer derivative works to sweep away, and that (perhaps more important) it was the product of a society much closer to that which had originally produced Star Trek. For example, the tense relationship between the US and USSR made itself felt, however hamfistedly, in the way the show depicted Klingons and Romulans and all sorts of things. There’s an echo of that in the book; at the time, I think it was inescapable. The movie ... well, there’s nothing that interesting in the movie. And that gets to the main point I want to make, which is this: The book follows on from a TV show that had to do, at however diluted a level, with dramatic things. Power, politics, dealing with the other. The movie is a deliberate attempt to reject all of that, leaving not a whole hell of a lot.

The book, like the original show, has a certain interest in aliens. Are these antlike aliens intelligent? What’s going on in the Romulan ship? The movie, well, not even slightly. Vulcans are racist and repress emotions and Spock turns his back on them and then they all get blown up anyway. It’s an inward-looking movie. It’s not at all interested in exploring strange new worlds, or in seeking out new life and new civilizations. This makes it, in the long run, awfully dull.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the movie is inherently conservative, while Trek has usually been concerned with the new. Not always in a sophisticated way, as witness Vulcan!; but the theme I think can be fairly said to be present throughout much of Trek. I suspect it’s that fact that drew me, and probably many others, to the show (in whatever iteration) in the first place. Books like Vulcan!, however flawed, kept me imaginatively involved in the show; kept the characters alive for me, kept their mission of exploration going as an ideal for me as a reader. I don’t know whether the new Star Trek movie would have been as effective, in the long run. I wonder whether it’ll be effective for others.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: Last Legends of Earth

Last Legends of Earth
by A.A. Attanasio

I won’t say this book is what every science fiction novel ought to be, but it’s pretty near the ideal sf book as far as I’m concerned. It’s extravagant, epic, and consistently inventive, not only in terms of setting, and not only in terms of how the setting affects the characters, but in the way in which the setting is described — the language, the sentence structure, the way of thinking. It’s a book that, to me, fulfills every promise the idea of science fiction suggests. 

The novel’s set in the far future, long after the death of Earth and the solar system. An alien from a subatomic world, Gai, creates a new star system in the galaxy as a means of luring and trapping her people’s enemies, the zotl, who will come to the new star system to feed on its population; it’s a desperation tactic in a genocidal war. To draw the zotl, Gai creates bait to people her star system — human beings. But not new humans; these are the spirits of humans from the past, reincarnated as pawns in cosmic war. The book follows the war’s progress, but also follows the exploits of a pilot named Ned O’Tennis and his lover Chan-Ti Beppu, who are torn apart by circumstance and struggle to find their way back to each other across time and space. 

The scope of the book is tremendous, covering thousands of years of history and fifteen planets (more, in fact). It’s both linear and non-linear, which sounds confusing, but works smoothly in practice; it’s an example of the understated cleverness with which Attanasio has assembled his text. “Assembled” is perhaps not the right word, but does hint at the shifting points-of-view in the novel; in a way, it’s put together out of the stories of the many characters who wander through its pages, with Ned and Chan-ti only the most notable of several recurring figures. Everyone has their own story, here. More: everyone is a legend. One of the last legends of Earth.

The book moves easily from flying cities to primitive hunter-gatherer communities to the point where high technology and myth fuse. Attanasio makes all these things, all his wildly disparate materials, cohere into something with character all its own; the book is a true original.

Is it the best sf book I’ve ever read? Probably not; it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the greatest books I’ve ever come across in any form. But we’re talking here about degrees of greatness. I think it’s the finest book I’ve read this year so far, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of Attanasio’s work. For me, this is one of the best things about the book; not only is it great in itself, but it’s the first book by Attanasio I’ve ever read — meaning I have a new author to follow, a new bibliography to work my way through. It’s a treat to discover a writer like this, and a pleasure to find that there are more books out there that can give these kinds of pleasures.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: May summation

This month, I read a total of nine books. All of them are from around the apartment, so that's forty-nine books in total so far, only twenty-eight of which are books I own. I've got to step that up to reach my goal for October, so my goal this month of reading at least twenty books.  I'm also going to try to be quicker about posting my thoughts on the books I read up here; that probably means that the posts are going to be shorter.

We'll see how that goes.

Readings 2K9: Anathem

by Neal Stephenson

This is not a bad book, but I’m reluctant to go so far as to actually call it good. It’s an odd sort of science-fiction novel; it’s really a set of extended philosophical dialogues, given a few nods toward a novel form. It takes place on another world, in which human history has followed a path roughly analogous to Western civilization on Earth (with analogues for Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so forth), though it's set a few thousand years after the point analogous to the present. Scientist-philosophers are contained within monastery-like maths, while outside their walls cultures and civilisations rise and fall. Anathem follows Erasmas, one of the inhabitants of a math; the first third or so of the book sees Erasmas getting involved with politics and mysteries within the math, the next third is a kind of father-quest in which he seeks an absent mentor-figure, and the last chunk of the book brings together and sums up all the mysteries of the setting with an adventure into space. It’s a nicely structured sf adventure story, then, with a constantly escalating series of payoffs.

Except it isn’t, really. The action, the forward movement of the plot, is sporadic at best. It seems to exist as a vehicle to move from one pseudo-Socratic dialogue to another. It’s like sf’s traditional weakness for infodumps and digressions has been apotheosized; taken to the utmost degree, it has become the main structural principle of the book, so that the novel (like a literal-minded Tristram Shandy) is composed primarily of digressions — which, it must be said, turn out in many cases to be not as digressive as they appear. Still, there’s no doubt this could have been a much shorter and more streamlined story, had Stephenson wished it.

Personally, I don’t think the book quite makes its case for its circuitous presentation of its ideas. One of the aspects of the nature of fiction lies in its difference from philosophy; fiction is philosophy in action, if you like, ideas given dramatic form. Anathem recoils from drama; even when important things happen, they tend not to be dramatic in the usual sense — hinging on human choice. Indeed, the novel’s extrapolation of its central premises suggests that choice is in a way moot; all possible outcomes of a given situation may be seen as equally valid. Which is an interesting thought-experiment, but Stephenson doesn't translate it into an interesting story structure.

Stephenson crafts the novel well on the sentence level. He coins new words, which are sometimes clumsy (and sometimes jarring) plays on standard English terms, but which occasionally bear more weight. One of the made-up words, “Suvin”, is almost certainly a reference to sf critic Darko Suvin, for example. His sentences are clever and occasionally intricate; his humour mostly works, and the book is readable enough.

The underlying science-fictional ideas are familiar. The ‘theorics’ studied at the maths are basically physics with some math and philosophy; so there's another sense here in which this is a classical science fiction story — physicists and physics students trying to save the world, in opposition to politicians and unenlightened non-scientists. It feels like a traditional sf juvenile, with students working out secrets of the world through sheer cleverness.

Unfortunately, it falls into the stereotypical pitfall of old-school science-fiction: the characters are rudimentary, to be polite. Erasmas has a crush on one character for the first two or three hundred pages, but if you don’t read closely you could easily miss it — it’s not like he actually does anything about it, or has his way of thinking affected by his emotion. Incredibly, Erasmas later discovers he’s actually in love with somebody he’s known for years; even more incredibly, we’re expected to believe that her removal from the math later that same day is a serious driving force for him. 

There’s a terminal blandness afflicting many of the characters, and it’s why at the end of the day I can’t bring myself to call this book a success. There’s nothing memorable on a human level in this novel. Even the father-figure Erasmas seeks in the novel’s middle part is flat; he works, to the extent that he works at all, only because he reminds us of mentor-figures in other stories, similar characters in similar roles in better books. This is kind of appropriate, given the notions of ideal forms Stephenson pays around with — archetypes as ideals. But in the end, all the book does is demonstrate the gap between the ideal and the real; and suggest that, in certain ways, it is the latter which is more interesting.