From the January 2012 issue of Backpacker magazine: Required Reading, Top picks from our Facebook fans: OK, it's not a page-turner. But pack this on...moreFrom the January 2012 issue of Backpacker magazine: Required Reading, Top picks from our Facebook fans: OK, it's not a page-turner. But pack this on a trek of Muir's namesake trail, and you'll want to slow time down, not speed it up.(less)
Although this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really...moreAlthough this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really worth reading. If you’re curious about my review of that one, see here.
Think of Tale of the Troika as kind of a twisted Lewis Carroll-esque fantasy of the Soviet bureaucracy, but not nearly as good as Lewis Carroll would have done.
Luckily it is short, because it is hit and miss, with the emphasis on miss. Still, there are some delightful sections. The argument between the bedbug and abominable snowman about whether the human race was any better than other species is probably the highlight, but there are others scattered amidst the dross.
Near the end, there was one paragraph that will ring true for anyone tired of the attack on science common in the United States today. Is evolution true? Is climate change happening? The Soviets knew the power of ideological denial.
“How’s he on perjury?” Feofil asked the goat. “Never,” she replied. “He always believes every word he says.” “Really, what is a lie?” said Farfurkis. “A lie is a denial or a distortion of a fact. But what is a fact? Can we speak of facts in our increasingly complex life? A fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by witnesses. But eyewitnesses can be prejudiced, self-interested, or simply ignorant. Or, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by documents. But documents can be forged or tampered with. Or finally, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is determined by me personally. However, my sensations can be dulled or even completely deceived under certain circumstances. Thus, it is evident that a fact is something ephemeral, nebulous, and unverifiable, and the elimination of the concept becomes necessary. But in that case falsehood and truth become primitive concepts, indefinable through any other general categories. There exist only the Great Truth and its antipode, the Great Lie. The Great Truth is so great and its validity so obvious to any normal man, such as myself, that it is totally futile to try to refute or distort it, that is, to lie.”
I actually read Roadside Picnic in a different edition, but I wanted to reserve that review for the much-better Tale of the Troika. See here for that...moreI actually read Roadside Picnic in a different edition, but I wanted to reserve that review for the much-better Tale of the Troika. See here for that book, and here for my review.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really worth reading.
Ostensibly it is a tale of the chaos that reigns when aliens “visit” Earth and leave some mystifying junk behind.
But what you get is (view spoiler)[a story of a very corrupt society that is trying to both investigate (the scientists) and profit from (everyone else, including many of the scientists) the horrific junk, which tends to mangle and kill anyone that ventures into the visitation zone. Why the junk should do this is barely mentioned. The authors’ primary purpose in writing this was to let them fantasize about those nasty effects; it is fundamentally no different that what a group of kids telling scifi-themed horror stories around a campfire might come up with, although the authors might have a more creative collection than the kids create. But that, frankly, isn’t enough to make this an interesting story. (hide spoiler)]
The only reason this doesn’t get a one-star rating is the portrayal of Soviet-era corruption. The contrast with how the same story would unfold in the United States is mildly interesting (envision locals trying to deal with the invasion of the sinister military-industrial complex, a la E.T.) An interesting book along these lines would explore how visitation sites throughout the world were investigated and exploited differently, but that isn’t this book.
Read Tale of the Troika if you want a taste of these authors. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Wow, what a fascinating and strange book. You should read it.
Doesn’t take long, and it is pretty easy reading. Yeah, true, science fiction from 1956 d...moreWow, what a fascinating and strange book. You should read it.
Doesn’t take long, and it is pretty easy reading. Yeah, true, science fiction from 1956 definitely creates a few difficulties in style and anachronisms, but those fade away pretty quickly.
A quick synopsis: a simple, stupid and barbaric man is stranded after a space battle. He appeals to a passing ship for rescue, and they leave him to die. He dedicates himself to the task of vengeance, and with each step he becomes more — more intelligent, more capable, and even more human. Finally, he becomes something just a bit more than human.
For those of you that know your scifi, this is a twisted blend of Philip K. Dick (yeah, he’s like Mary — once you know where to look, you’ll start seeing him everywhere) and Peter Watts. Watts because no one here is admirable — there are some victims, but mostly everyone is something of a villain. Not a pretty picture of humans; spiteful, greedy, angry, vicious are apt adjectives for just about everyone. As the book climbs towards its climax, PKD comes more into play, in psychedelia as well as in hints of existential questions, a temporal paradox, and a robot bartender that becomes something of a literal deus ex machina.
I thought I added this to my TBR shelf because it had shown up on a list of the 100 Best Science Fiction novels of all time, but now I can’t find any such list. (Yeah, it’s #58 on this one, but I know that isn’t the one I remember.) But this novel is acclaimed by plenty o’ the greats in the genre (e.g., William Gibson, so there.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de...moreHave to eventually read this, of course.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.
The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […] The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea. — [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]
What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage.
Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.
First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.
Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.
In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.
Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country.(less)
A brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the science...moreA brilliant and memorable setup, executed adequately but not with much depth or insight.
The Change is the shift of the laws of nature from the science we deal with to a magical reality, albeit one a number of glaring inconsistencies. The book was written in the early 1980s, long before today's mash-up of terrorist bogeymen and lurking environmental catastrophe — the cultural nightmares of the time centered on nuclear holocaust, instead, and Boyett's magical apocalypse serves a similar purpose.
The plot structure is a very predictable one — quite derivative of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, as well as numerous others. The fantasy and magic are integral, but unfortunately there's just too much nonsense and silliness.
The natural audience for this would be tweens and impressionable preadolescents whose critical faculties haven't yet developed, but the moderate amount of sex might need to be considered.
The author was only twenty-one when this was published, which is pretty amazing. His relative immaturity explains the juvenile exuberance, the simple story, and the somewhat crudely integrated sex. Sadly, it would have been a better book if he'd only received rejection notices, was forced to put the manuscript in the back of a drawer and returned to it a decade later when he wasn't so impressed with himself.
Meh. Within the first two or three dozen pages I was very strongly tempted to put this down and walk away. NPR had just released their listener-select...moreMeh. Within the first two or three dozen pages I was very strongly tempted to put this down and walk away. NPR had just released their listener-selected list of the best 100 of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and there's lots there I haven't read yet. Vinge's The Snow Queen isn't on the list.
What dragged me down at the very beginning was the overly lyrical style, unoriginal plot set-up and banal characters of her young protagonists. But I glanced at some Goodreads reviews, realized it had won the Hugo Award, and decided to give it another chance.
Once more mature characters started showing up, it got better.
But... (view spoiler)[Those two central adolescents were still gratingly clueless. I mean, the guy was passive-aggressive and blamed everyone else for both life's disappointments and his own stupid decisions, and then turns into a very evil thug... and we're still supposed to like him? And Moon just moons over this idiot and screws over the rest of the world and her own life to "rescue" him. Does that ever work in real life? Isn't this supposed to be "fantasy" because of the setting, not because it's plot is centered on a pathetic juvenile love story gone wrong?
Most of the other characters are better. The cop, Jerusha, was more interesting, but at least as frustrating. She was maneuvered into an untenable position by political forces far beyond her control, but her stupid arrogance led her to fight this unwinnable fight, to her own detriment as well as those around her. She recognized the trap, walked into it eyes wide open, but neglected to notice her choice had horrible repercussions on everyone around her. (hide spoiler)]
I find it difficult to imagine that Vinge intended so many of her characters to actually be repugnant. After all, it isn't as if life isn't full of people like this — but a good novelist would show us the more likely tragic outcomes of these poor choices, whereas Vinge portrays any form of bull-headedness as if it is "strength of will" and will end up winning the day.
So in the end, this turned out to be a lousy romance novel, in which stupid people make stupid decisions, which they follow up with stupid determination, and the stupid author grants them their stupid wishes.
Huh, that came out harsher then I expected.
So I need to balance this with a few pluses.
Uh... well, Vinge writes well. Mostly.
I'm now realizing I'm more disappointed in this than I thought. I actually can't point to anything here that recommends this book. Way too much melodrama, even in the setting. I mean, the planet's seasons are disturbed because its solar system has been captured by a black hole? Hunting poor innocent seals because their blood is the fountain of youth?
This was the science fiction selection for the Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club for the month of July 2011. Visit this link to see all of the discussions, group member reviews, etc.
(I want to read this because of the New York Times’ ‘essai’, Montaigne’s Moment (March 10, 2011). There’s a copy of Montaigne in the Great Books serie...more(I want to read this because of the New York Times’ ‘essai’, Montaigne’s Moment (March 10, 2011). There’s a copy of Montaigne in the Great Books series my folks have had since I was a wee lad, so that’s covered. But Bakewell’s companion is somewhat oversubscribed at my library: “37 holds on first copy returned of 23 copies”. Of course, it isn’t as if I don’t have enough stuff on my TBR shelf.)(less)
Based on all the attention Portis has been getting, what with the re-making of True Grit by the Coen Brothers, it seems like this would be a good book...moreBased on all the attention Portis has been getting, what with the re-making of True Grit by the Coen Brothers, it seems like this would be a good book to read.(less)
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes tha...moreRead this soooo long ago.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes that add up to, more or less, a progressive liberal fantasyland.
Bad points I recall: the political upheaval that made the forgoing possible was implausible at the time, but worse was that the same inventory, above — which was the raison d'etre for the novel — also became tiresome. Think of it as a staged tour of a Potemkin village. Time after time, everything has somehow worked out exactly as the revolutionaries [author] wanted it to, showing how wonderful life would be if only people would share and follow through on the vision! Interfering details such compromises, radical changes that didn't work out so well, or even just the messiness of quotidian existence: none of these are permitted.
I might be mis-remembering. The downside of the revolution might have gotten more airplay than I recall, but that certainly wasn't what has stuck with me after twenty-five or thirty years. I also have no recollection of a plot, so I suspect it was mostly there in service to the guide tour of the author's vision.
One detail I do remember is that San Francisco's Market Street was torn up and the (supposedly) ancient stream that used to lie along that path was brought back to life. In the intervening years while on a congested and chaotic Market Street, I've often tried to imagine a stream and a garden path there instead.
Nice fantasy, but not really plausible enough to be an important book. (less)
Okay, I finally finished this — but, frankly, I'm not sure it was worth the time spent. Oh, don't get me wrong: this was interesting enough to warrant...moreOkay, I finally finished this — but, frankly, I'm not sure it was worth the time spent. Oh, don't get me wrong: this was interesting enough to warrant four stars. But in some way, it was still a chore to read.
The basic idea: Brunner created a completely alien world (humanity plays no role whatsoever in this story) and follows the development of their intelligent species beginning with the technologically primitive and ending with their escape to the stars as a space-faring civilization.
But he had to invent such an alien world that I sometimes stuggled to get around the plethora of words he had to make up to describe everything from their anatomy to their psychology. Add in the episodic nature of the tale, skipping over history like a flat rock over water, and things get distracting pretty easily.
In the end, this was a magnificent effort of imagination, albeit somewhat weak on the emotional level.
Well worth the struggle, but don't say I didn't warn you.