June 3, 2013

I’ve just finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, and I really enjoyed it.

The setup is simple. Aliens crash in fourteenth century Germany. They don’t have the materials with them to fix their spaceship, and even though they’ve crashed deep in a forest, they’re soon discovered by humans.

The main character is Father Dietrich, a priest and scholar. He is a man of great faith, but has also studied in Paris and hobnobbed with some of the finest minds of his time. The aliens are truly fortunate that he is one of the first people to find them, because he doesn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re demons, as most of the rest of the people would have. In fact, much of the enjoyment of this book is in watching Dietrich attempt to make sense of these creatures. He’s thoughtful, intelligent, and as educated as you can get, but fourteenth century science (pre Newton, pre Galileo, pre Copernicus) just doesn’t prepare one for this. Dietrich’s efforts to understand are valiant and admirable, but even once he’s able to communicate with the grasshopper-like creatures, his communication is hindered by faulty cosmology and a complete ignorance of electricity.

There’s a second plot line that takes place in the present (or near future) involving a couple of academics. She’s a cosmologist working on a new theory of spacetime, he’s a historian who does computer modeling of populations and can’t figure out why an old abandoned German village has never been resettled. (This would, of course, be Eifelheim.) Ironically perhaps, I found the history part of this more interesting than the physics part. He uncovers lots of bits and pieces of the mystery that are baffling to him, but that the reader gets. The present day action takes up much less of the book than the fourteenth century stuff.

It’s not an action story, by any means. Its strength is in the characters, both human and alien. They are generally sympathetic, even when they disagree (which is often) or do things that would generally be considered wrong. Even the alien characters are diverse and fleshed out. It’s a very thoughtful book, and seems to be very well researched. All in all, it’s one of the better books I’ve read lately.


More than Human

April 29, 2013

Okay, the Hothouse posts turned out to be a bit more tedious than I had anticipated, so I won’t be covering books in that much detail very often…

I’ve just finished More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon. The story is told in three parts. In the first part we’re introduced to a collection of misfits with different special abilities who manage to find each other and form a small “family.” Actually, it’s more than just a family, as there’s sort of a psychic bond between them as well. They eventually come to think of themselves as a single entity, which in later parts they refer to as Homo Gestalt. The humans that make up this entity think of themselves by analogy with body parts. One person is the hands, one is the tongue, one the head, and so on.

The second and third parts of the story are told in a rather unusual manner, as in both cases they are told through the eyes of a character with memory loss, and the plot unfolds as their recollection of events expands. In the third part, we find that the group has broken up. Eventually they get back together again, with a new member. This new member, in the body part analogy, serves as the conscience of the group, as the earlier breakup was largely due to the lack of a conscience.

Spoiler alert (although one can argue over whether this is necessary in a work that’s over 50 years old):

think I get the ending, but I’m not quite sure. What I think happens is, once our little band reassembles, this time with a conscience, they are deemed ready to join the rest of the Gestalt community, and they find themselves in psychic contact with other similar entities. These other entities were aware of our protagonists, but avoided contact until the group had progressed enough. This happened when it acquired a conscience.

Overall, this is a decent book, but it didn’t really stand out for me. One of the problems with reading old scifi is that what was new and radical in the 50s is not particularly new or radical today. I suppose it’s better to read things in their own time if you want the full impact.

Anyway, that’s all for  that one. Not sure what I’m reading next. While I decide, I’m reading a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories. You can’t go wrong with those.

Hothouse (Chapters 20-26; End)

March 29, 2013

Finished it.

Our small band is still living in caves on the side of a mountain that is tall enough to catch sunlight even though it’s slightly on the dark side of the terminator. Yattmur has had a child (by Gren, of course) who is called Laren. The morel has taken complete control of Gren now, has grown, and wants to leave Gren and take over the baby. Yattmur, of course, is opposed to this. Gren is looking pretty unwell at this point, as well, and spends most of his time just lying in the cave doing nothing.

It’s at this point that we meet our last major character: Sodal Ye. (Sodal is a title, Ye is its name.) This is probably the strangest character we’ve encountered, as Sodal Ye is basically a dolphin who travels the land by being carried around on the back of a male human. It  has two additional human female companions. Sodal Ye is highly intelligent; more intelligent than any of the humans. (Douglas Adams was right!) It’s also very arrogant. (In this book arrogance seems to scale very precisely with intelligence.)

Unfortunately, this creature reminds me of a couple of different characters from the cartoon The Tick. It’s probably a bad thing if you’re writing a serious book when one of your characters reminds the reader of characters from an absurd (and extremely funny) cartoon, but since the book predates the cartoon, Aldiss can hardly be held responsible. The two characters I’m thinking of, incidentally, are Mr. Smarty-Pants, the hyper-intelligent dolphin who develops the fish magnet, and the large whale (named “Leviathan”?) who emerges from the sea and proceeds to run across America for no apparent reason.)

Anyway, Mr. Smarty-Pants Sodal Ye has a solution to Yattmur’s problem. They pretend to allow the morel to take over Laren, but as the morel is sliding off of Gren onto Laren, they snatch Laren away and catch the morel in a bucket (made from a large gourd) instead. Laren and Gren are both free and the morel is without a host. Yay! Gren, after a good long sleep, is back to his old self, and it’s not long before we’re reminded that Gren’s old self was actually a bit of a jerk, also. (He’s always been smarter than most humans, and there’s the whole intelligence/arrogance connection, remember.)

Soon Gren, Yattmur, Laren, and Sodal Ye and his companions set off towards the light, with the morel in the bucket. We learn more about life along the way from Ye. It turns out that evolution is sort of an oscillatory thing, as life on the upswing diversifies, while life on the downswing (as it is on earth at this point) undiversifies. (Hmmph. Spell-check says that’s not a word!) Hence the distinction between plant and animal is becoming blurred, and this blurring will continue as life on earth winds down.

At about this time, they find the a dying traverser blocking their path, and (coincidence of coincidences) who should climb off of it, but Lily-yo and company. Remember Lily-yo? Anyway, when they find out that life on earth is winding down they decide they’re going to hitch back to the moon on another traverser. Sodal Ye and his companions are going to go with them. Somewhere during this, the morel gets dumped onto Sodal Ye. There are two creatures that deserve each other!

Also, the morel splits, and they use the other half to take control of their new traverser. Now they’re driving and not just riding! They drop Gren, Yattmur, and Laren off back in the forest, somewhere in more or less the same environment they grew up in. Lily-yo tries to convince them to come to the moon with them, but Gren basically tells them good riddance. The traverser takes off, Gren, Yattmur, and Laren start to climb down into the trees, and the book ends.

The book ends. So was it any good? On the whole, I’d say it was alright, but it’s not one I’m going to be doing a lot of recommending of. It bears a lot in common with Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy. Mainly in that he is largely concerned with nature, the environment, and its effect on how people live. I like that facet of Hothouse. I like the various odd creatures that populate Aldiss’s world, and the rationales behind them. Aldiss is definitely a biology and evolution fanboy. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something that makes sense scientifically, this isn’t always it. I probably won’t be using this in my Science of Science Fiction course this May.


Hothouse (Chapters 16-19)

March 23, 2013

Not as much to report here. Gren (with Morel), Yattmur, and four of the “tummy-bellies” (the creatures that were umbillically attached to the large pineapple thingie until Gren cut them off) are traveling and having various adventures.

Two things about that previous sentence:

1) I’m tired of reading the term “tummy-belly” to describe the annoying fat creatures that are accompanying our “heroes.” Unfortunately, I’m stuck with it.

2) Spell-check doesn’t flag the word “thingie.” Apparently this is now a real word. Progress? You decide.

Anyway, they started off on the raft that belonged to the tummy-belly tribe. They rode this down to the sea, drifted quite a distance and eventually crashed onto an iceberg, then rode the iceberg to an island.

“Iceberg?” you say. Yeah, they’ve drifted far from the part of earth that is directly under the sun. Of course, due to the tide-locked orbit, this could be towards the poles, or east or west or some point in between. So the sun is low in the sky and life is colder. Anyway, they end up on an island that’s actually not too bad. They can find food and the plant life isn’t very dangerous. Gren and Yattmur could probably be quite happy here, but Morel wants to leave of course.

To return to an earlier point, Morel is a fungal species that is supposed to be the root of human intelligence. And he’s a complete asshole! He is basically intent on conquest and domination. He has no interest in what anyone else wants, and when he doesn’t get his way by persuasion or command, he gets it by coercion. (He’s able to inflict pain on Gren.) He’s arrogant and insulting, and he remains arrogant in spite of the fact that almost every idea he has doesn’t work out the way he expects it to. No matter how often he’s wrong about things, his belief in his intellectual genius remains unshaken. If this is not Aldiss’s statement about the human race, then he’s a very clumsy writer.

But, back to the plot. At the end of chapter 19, Morel devises a way to get off the island (in spite of the fact that nobody else wants to leave) by hitchhiking on some sort of migratory plant. One of the tummy-bellies dies in the process (Morel doesn’t care, of course). And the plant ends up taking them in the wrong direction. Memo to Morel: Don’t you get tired of being right all the time?

This marks the end of Part 2. Don’t forget, there’s still the invasion of earth by flymen from the moon that we have to get back to at some point. And hopefully Toy and the other members of Gren’s former tribe are still alive somewhere. There’s about a third of the book left. Let’s see if this all gets tied up somehow.

Hothouse (Chapters 10-15)

March 5, 2013

In chapter 10, Gren is tossed out of the group by Toy, because he refuses to recognize her authority. Shortly after he leaves, a large fungus drops down onto his head. This fungus, which calls itself “morel”, can communicate with Gren psychically. (At first, I wasn’t quite sure whether the fungus was actually intelligent or just really hallucinogenic, but as I went on, I think it’s obvious that it’s the former, and not the latter.) In fact, the fungus not only communicates with Gren, but controls him as well.

At the end of chapter 10, Gren is joined by Poyly (who apparently has a thing for Gren), and the fungus divides and possesses her as well. This marks the end of Part 1.

So far in part 2, we are following the adventures of Gren and Poyly, as directed by the morel. The morel turns out to be quite an asshole. It has never possessed a creature as intelligent as a human before, and it likes the new experience. It basically wants to spread itself all over the planet, via humans. (Humans, incidentally, are only about a foot and a half tall, and green. Have I mentioned that?)

Anyway, our party encounters another human, and basically beats her up and threatens to kill her unless she takes them to her tribe. (See what I mean by “asshole”?) This is after another adventure, during which I was rooting for our characters to die. It’s not very often that I find myself rooting for the protagonist in a book to die. (Not even in Stephen R. Donaldson books!) But the morel’s plan is genuinely frightening, and I don’t really care who has to die in order to thwart it.

After more adventures with Yattmur’s tribe and with a siren-like volcano creature, Gren, Poyly, and Yattmur seek out the Fishers.

The Fishers are human or human-like creatures with long tails which connect them to large pineapple-looking plants. In the morel’s next dick move, Gren, Poyly and Yattmur jump onto a barge on which the Fishers are about to fish, and Gren (at the morel’s direction) cuts off their tails, cutting them off from the plants which basically direct them. (Think Borg creatures, cut off from the collective.) The morel claims this is justified because the large pineapple things have “enslaved” the Fishers. When Poyly asks what the difference is between this and what the morel does to them, the morel points out that it is doing this for Gren and Poyly’s own good.

Um, yeah.

Between adventures, we learn more about the morel and about humans. The morel has access to “racial memories” of the humans that the humans themselves are not conscious of, and so it can learn about our entire history, even into prehistory. According to Aldiss, it learns that in fact some distant ancestor of it possessed some distant ancestors of us, and that this is the source of human intelligence. That is, our great leap of intelligence is due to some sort of fungal brain parasite.

I can’t help but feel that this is the author’s comment on human behavior. That is, in the author’s dim view of humanity, we behave as if the source of our intelligence is possession by a creature with the type of morality exhibited so far by the morel: conquer, dominate first; ask questions later. I don’t know enough about Aldiss to say whether her really is this misanthropic or not.

Anyway, on this happy note, I’ll sign off now. Oh, and Poyly died.

Hothouse (Chapters 5-9)

February 23, 2013

Our small band of adults begin to explore their new world on the Moon. In the process, they have a bit of a mishap, and meet up with another band of flymen. During the ensuing conversation, it becomes apparent that our band of newbies is a bit slow on the uptake with regard to their current condition. That is, they don’t realize that they’re now flymen, in spite of the physical evidence.

The band that they meet up with take directions from the “captives.” These are people who didn’t mutate into flymen quite properly, and so have various deformities. (The mutation from human to flyman apparently is driven by the cosmic rays on encounters between stops.) I guess the idea of having the captives in charge is that since these folks aren’t good for physical labor, they have a lot of time to think about things, and this makes them a good choice to run things. Anyway, the captives have an idea, and that is that the flymen on the Moon are going to retake Earth. I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to work, but that means that Lily-yo and the others are soon hitching a ride on the traversers going back the other way. (93 million miles)

Meanwhile, back on earth…

The children are left to fend for themselves. They have their own misadventure, which involves being accidentally transported by some giant flying plant. They ditch somewhere along the coast, and find themselves in the midst of a sort of plant war between ocean vegetation, land vegetation, and a thin strip of transitional vegetation that’s hanging on in between. The in-between stuff is sort of the last refuge of earlier types of vegetation. So it’s hear we find regular trees, and even some animals.

We also meet a colony of termights, who turn out to be more intelligent than one would expect from large insectoid creatures. They help Gren (the oldest boy) become reunited with the others after he (willingly) becomes separated. Gren is not in charge; the oldest girl, Toy is. But Gren is not very good at taking orders. He figures out how to get them out of a jam, however, and at this point seems to be on the verge of taking over the group, de facto. (This is kind of unheard of, since in this distant world, men are much scarcer than women, and so must be protected.)

A few years back, I read Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy, and I recall one passage in which he describes the arrival of spring on Helliconia. It was a very vivid description, and you could almost feel the planet coming to life as you read it. That same kind of descriptive power is here also. Life in this book has an explosiveness to it. Everyone likes life. Aldiss is thoroughly infatuated with it. While there is some plot going on, this book so far has been largely an exposition of a world in which life, especially plant life, has gone absolutely wild.

Hothouse (Chapters 2-4)

February 10, 2013

So, after the death of the child in Chapter 1, Lily-yo and a companion climb to the top of the tree (the “tips”) to take the “soul” of the child (a small carved wooden figure) so that it might “go up.” We learn some more about the world.

In this distant future, the earth’s orbit has slowed and become synchronized with it revolutions about the sun, so that the one side of the earth always faces the sun. Hence the title for the novel. Furthermore, the moon has spiraled away from the earth and is now at one of the stable Lagrange points of the Earth-Sun system. At the tips, we encounter the traversers, which are enormous spiderlike creatures that run along a web extending from the Earth to the Moon.

I read somewhere that Aldiss was informed while writing this that the astrophysics behind this was crap. Yes, the moon is very slowly getting farther away from the earth, and the earth is slowing down slightly (and these effects are related to each other). And yes, there are Lagrange points where an object could be placed and remain always in the same position with respect to the Earth and Sun. I’m guessing that the objections are mainly twofold: One is that the moon wouldn’t end up at rest at the Lagrange point, even if it got that far away, due to angular momentum conservation. (I haven’t done the calculation to see how far away the moon would be when the earth would stop rotating.) The other objection is that the moon, now 93 million miles away from the earth, is still identified as a half-disc. At that distance the moon would be a dot, and its phases would be even less identifiable without a telescope than the phases of Venus.

Aldiss left it in anyway, just because he loved the imagery of an ancient earth-moon system enshrouded in cobwebs. I’m no fanatic, so what the hell. 🙂

So, when Lily-yo returns to the others she has decided that it’s time for their band to break up. This means that they all go up to the tips, where the children will help the adults “go up”. This involves encasing the adults in some sort of pods, and attaching them to strands of the web, where they will become stuck to the leg of one of the giant versers, which will then take them up.

On the way back up to the tips, we encounter more dangers, one of the last of which are the “flymen” (one of the small number of significant non-plant creatures) which try to steal the children. Apparently when this is all over, the children will be fending for themselves. Why this is a good idea is never explained. The impression I get, though, is that what makes it favorable for survival is that it forces the older children to become responsible before they reach the age where they would otherwise become reckless.

So the adults are now hitching a ride on the enormous  versers (Traversers) inside these airtight pods. When they get to the moon (93 million miles away!) they come out of their shells and find themselves transformed into…. FLYMEN!

A few words about Aldiss’s world that are kind of neat and may not have come through my description so far. First, while life on the planet is almost all plants (except for the continent-spanning banyan tree which hosts it all), it’s a very, um, active plant life.

No human cold ever kill a wiltmilt, for its vital parts were inaccessible. But already its struggles were attracting predators, the thinpins – those mindless sharks of the middle layers – rayplanes, trappersnappers, gargoyles, and smaller vegetable vermin. They would tear the wiltmilt to living pieces until nothing of it remained – and if they happened on a human at the same time… well, it was the way.

The other passage that caught my eye, that says a lot about the remnants of humanity that live in the distant future was this one:

“It is the way,” Flor answered, and Lily-yo knew she would get no deeper a word on the matter than that. Nor could she frame deeper words herself; human understandings trickled shallow these days. It was the way.

So, yeah, this is what humanity has been reduced to.

Anyway, I’m enjoying reading about this world so far, although there’s no real plot going on yet. (But, hey, I’m only on page 29.) More later.

Hothouse (Chapter 1)

February 8, 2013

Hothouse begins with the death of a five year old child. As a result, we learn very quickly that the future created by Brian Aldiss is a very dangerous place.

We are introduced to a small band of humans in a distant future in which Earth has been overrun by massive vegetation, and humans are a minor species living in the branches of the trees. The ground is referred to, but not seen in this chapter, and I get the impression that humans seldom, if ever, see the ground, and don’t see the sky very often either.

Anyway, this chapter isn’t a very long one, and the main thing we’ve learned so far is that there are a lot of ways to die. Looks promising.

The Space Merchants

February 7, 2013

So, to immediately ruin the concept of this blog, I’m writing my first entry about a book that I’ve just finished. (The idea was to write about books as I read them, but I wanted to start with this one, and I didn’t get around to starting the blog until I finished the book. Oh well.)

Anyway, late last year, I bought the American Science Fiction series from The Library of America. These two volumes contain a total of nine novels from the 1950s, and I’ll be reading them in order. The first of these is The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, from 1953.

This is a satirical novel, in which the authors extrapolate the trends of capitalism as they saw them, and end up with a world dominated by large corporations, the most powerful of which are advertising firms. The tools of advertising have become far more sophisticated and scientific, and almost anything is legal in the quest to sell a product. (For example, making food products addictive.)

Mitchell Courtenay is a star-class advertising exec for Fowler Schocken, the world’s leading advertising firm. (Star-class means that he’s a cut above us regular folks, known as “consumers.”) At the beginning of the novel, Courtenay is handed the reins to the Venus division, and thus is in charge of making sure that as Venus is colonized, all commerce on the new planet is controlled by Fowler Schocken and its clients.

While on a business trip to Antarctica, Courtenay is clubbed on the head and wakes up with a new identity as a consumer working in indentured servitude for the Chlorella corporation. The rest of the novel is about his attempt to work his way from his job on the production of Chicken Little (a chicken food product) back to his old life, and what happens when he gets there.

The real star of the novel, as in the case of many science fiction novels, is the world itself. Given that the novel first appeared in the early 50s, I’m guessing that it has been highly influential on later science fiction. While reading it, I was continually reminded of more recent works (though I probably won’t be able to remember many of them now). The most obvious descendants to me are the brilliant Max Headroom TV series, and the even more brilliant Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, in the total triumph of corporate power that we are introduced to.

The book is packed full of neat, often comic ideas. Chicken Little, for example, is a giant piece of artificially grown chicken meat in an enormous, cavernous room, where workers slice off hunks for packaging from sections that are ripe. When Courtenay finally meets up with his boss while running from the cops, his employer is able to get all the charges dropped. The murder charge is easy, the breach of contract charge is much harder.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It actually holds up very well, as the theme of capitalism run amok is still an issue today, and much of the book seems prophetic, or could just as easily have been written today. Normally, when I read something this old, I’m left with a feeling of “Well, this would have been much better back then.” I found this one enjoyable without having to consider its historical context.