1. Vance's central contention, that language shapes culture, is a good one and worth exploring, which is...moreI have only two things to say about this book.
1. Vance's central contention, that language shapes culture, is a good one and worth exploring, which is what he does here. He writes, "Each language is a special tool, with a particular capability. It is more than a means of communication, it is a system of thought" (45). And he then goes on to illustrate the truth of this by showing how the political and cultural landscape of one planet, Pao, is altered by consciously and deliberately altering the language.
2. Aside from this point about language, there's little to be gained from this book. The plot is essentially Hamlet sans the introspection and the death of all the characters at the end. There is little character development, little innovation in plot, and little of stylistic interest. At least, for better or for worse, because of its familiarity and simplicity, it reads quickly.(less)
**spoiler alert** Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters is both an action-oriented adventure story about parasitic slug aliens attempting to take over...more**spoiler alert** Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters is both an action-oriented adventure story about parasitic slug aliens attempting to take over the world and its citizens and social commentary on Communism and the Red Scare. As such, it appeals to young adult readers, who are looking for excitement and aliens, and to the general populace of the early 1950s, who would recognize the paranoia and militarism as part of the broader culture of the time.
This book, like Wylie's The Disappearance, is very much a book of its time, first in its Cold War references to the Iron Curtain and Russia, and second in its characterization of women and of gender roles. This comment made by Sam, the protagonist, is typical of the attitudes expressed toward Russia: "I wondered why the titans [the parasitic aliens] had not attacked Russia first; Stalinism seemed tailormade for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make; the people behind the Curtain had had their minds enslaved and parasites riding them for three generations. There might not be two kopeks difference between a commissar with a slug and a commissar without a slug" (205). It reflects clearly the divide between the East and the West and makes unmistakably clear the connection between the alien parasites and Communists. Later still, after the United States population has become fully aware of the problem and measures have been taken to protect them by curtailing their freedoms and increasing security, Sam describes the country as "undergoing a Terror. Friend might shoot friend, or wife denounce husband. Rumor of a titan could drum up a mob on any street, with Old Judge Lynch baying in their van. . . . The fact that most of the rumored discoveries of slugs were baseless made the rumors no less dangerous" (254). This description sounds very much like the effects of the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Just as the slugs are "puppet masters," taking over the free will and the lives of humans, so, according to this novel, are Communists puppet masters of their citizens, whose "puppet strings are always at hand" (262).
In terms of gender roles, although Heinlein's future society (the book is set in 2007) includes some societal changes that should affect gender roles and relations, such as new ways of approaching marriage (short-term, renewable, or permanent marriage licenses, for instance), the chief female character, Mary, undercuts this apparent progressive attitude toward gender roles. Mary is always little more than a sex object or a wife. When Sam first meets her, for instance, she is described as extremely desirable (in what is the weirdest description of a supposedly sexually attractive woman I think I have ever read): "A long, lean body, but unquestionably and pleasingly mammalian. Good legs. Broad shoulders for a woman. Flaming, wavy red hair and the real redheaded saurian bony structure to her skull. Her face was handsome rather than beautiful; her teeth were sharp and clean" (4-5). Although the next few sentences make it clear that Sam wants to jump her bones, this description is disturbingly like a description of livestock. Furthermore, although she, like Sam, is a field agent, and a very good one, even better than Sam perhaps, her contributions to the narrative eventually deteriorate to the point where all she says is "Yes, dear." Stay here; go back; have a baby; go with me to fight aliens on a faraway planet--to all of these things, she says "Yes dear." Having said that she is a good field agent, however, it must be pointed out that her primary skill seems to be flirting. Her job for the first half of the book is to act sexy around men and see if they respond. If they don't, bam! They must be slug-infested slaves. In fact, she tells Sam after their marriage that fists are not her weapons. Sam reflects, "I knew that she did not mean that guns were her weapons; she meant something older and more primitive. True, she could fight like a bad-tempered Kodiak bear and I respected her for it, but she was no Amazon. An Amazon doesn't look that way with her head on a pillow. Mary's true strength lay in her other talents" (220).
This book is frequently marketed to young adult readers and I have read several reviews that say that although they wouldn't re-read it as an adult, they would recommend it to an adolescent reader, especially adolescent boys. I would not. These ideas about women and sex roles simply permeate the book and most young readers are not equipped to deconstruct them.
A final element of the book and another reason I wouldn't give this to a young reader is the militarism of the ending. The final chapter of the book sees Sam and Mary packing up to go to Titan and finish off the rest of the slug parasites so they cannot return and attack again in the future. While that's a sensible goal given the situation, the ideology in which it is steeped is troubling. Sam says, of this goal, "Whether we make it or not, the human race has got to keep up its well-earned reputation for ferocity. If the slugs taught us anything, it was that the price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness" (338). He continues, saying, "Well, if Man wants to be top dog--or even a respected neighbor--he'll have to fight for it. Beat the plowshares back into swords; the other was a maiden aunt's fancy" (338). Freedom, according to Heinlein, is only to be found at the muzzle of a gun and pacifism is no more than a silly woman's dream. Not only that, but it is humankind's place to be fierce and not only to be respected but to be in charge. This complements American patriotism and nationalism too well for it not to be a problem, especially given the lessons we should have learned over the last few years. The final lines of the book complete the image of glory-seeking freedom fighters: "We are about to transship. I feel exhilarated. Puppet masters--the free men are coming to kill you! Death and Destruction!" (340). Given the political climate of the time, this furthers the separation between East and West, "puppet masters" and "free," and justifies the ongoing Cold War and its attendant curtailments of freedom. Given our current political climate, it does much the same, only exchanging Communist puppet masters with Islamic terrorist leaders. (less)
**spoiler alert** The two words that best describe this book are literary and depressive. Silverberg laces Dying Inside with references to T. S. Eliot...more**spoiler alert** The two words that best describe this book are literary and depressive. Silverberg laces Dying Inside with references to T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare, French Decadent poets, Kierkegaard, James Joyce, and many more literary and cultural figures, sometimes acknowledging the references and most times expecting the reader to share his background of cultural literacy. This makes for a rich and potentially very rewarding text, especially in the use of Joyce's story "The Dead."
Dying Inside is also depressive in mood. It is focused on one man's loss of his telepathic power as he ages, a loss that makes him feel he is losing his very self. This story is told partly through remembrances of earlier experiences related to his telepathic powers, both positive and negative. In some, he describes the sheer ecstasy of being inside others' minds and experiencing the world through them; in others he describes the isolation he feels as a result of this ability. He says,
"A man in my circumstances, wide open to everyone's innermost thoughts, really isn't going to experience a great deal of love. He is poor at giving love because he doesn't much trust his fellow human beings: he knows too many of their dirty little secrets, and that kills his feelings for them. Unable to give, he cannot get" (41).
This is in striking contrast to Alfred Bester's approach to telepathy in The Demolished Man. Bester envisions a society of telepaths as as able to "see the truth you [normal people] cannot see . . . That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we'll all be mind to mind and heart to heart . . ." (243). Bester argues for the deepdown goodness of humanity, a goodness that it is possible to reach eventually, concluding,, "There has been joy. There will be joy again" (243). It seems to me that there must be some deal of truth in Silverberg's approach, but I much prefer Bester's optimism.
Even in Silverberg's book there is some hope, however. After his telepathy has gone, he says, "I think life will be more peaceful. Silence will become my mother tongue. There will be discoveries and revelations, but no upheavals" (200). He begins to develop a more solid and positive relationship with his sister and he begins to come to terms with this loss, much in the way that we all must come to terms with losses of various sorts as we age.(less)
Dune is a really great book; it includes detailed and fascinating world building, an emphasis on ecology, a recognition of the power of religion withi...moreDune is a really great book; it includes detailed and fascinating world building, an emphasis on ecology, a recognition of the power of religion within a culture, and strong characterization. It is well-written and always interesting and fun to read. The only reason I can't give it five stars is because, despite all of these things, it doesn't really get to me on a personal level. It is intellectually interesting, even compelling as it creates its own world, but not emotionally moving for me.
Perhaps on re-reading it will have more of an impact (when I can spend less energy getting to know the world Herbert creates and more on the characters and their emotions). I think it deserves another reading at some point in the future. (less)
I enjoyed Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel so much more than I did his Foundation. This is essentially a detective story set in a future world of meg...moreI enjoyed Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel so much more than I did his Foundation. This is essentially a detective story set in a future world of megacities, space exploration, and human/robot interaction. The chief tension in this future society is that of overpopulation. There are too many people and their numbers are constantly growing; soon they will pass the point of sustainability on Earth. The book explores a couple of possible solutions to this problem. One is a return to the soil, a simplification of society and return to "medieval" ways of life. The other is further space colonization, sending humans out with robots to live together on new worlds.
Asimov's attention to the tensions between humans and robots is interesting because it raises questions about what makes us truly human and separates us from machines. It also mirrors broader concerns about Otherness in the form of minorities, immigrants, and divisions of social class. Humans are suspicious of robots and harbor resentment toward them for putting them out of jobs and this resentment is treated fairly sympathetically throughout the novel, even as one of the central characters, R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, is also treated sympathetically. Asimov presents a solution that is remarkably progressive, arguing for a future in which humans and robots can live and work together. He calls it C/Fe: "Carbon is the basis of human life and iron of robot life. It becomes easy to speak of C/Fe when you wish express a culture that combines the best of the two on an equal but parallel basis" (48). "Equal but parallel" sounds almost like the "separate but equal" racial policy of the early and mid-20th century, but Daneel's further explanation distinguishes between the two. He says, "[C/Fe] symbolizes neither one nor the other, but a mixture of the two, without priority" (48). Whether read in terms of a human/machine future or in terms of contemporary politics and Otherness, this is a promising and hopeful vision of future cooperation.
In general, this is an interesting and entertaining novel, which, although it does fall prey to some stereotypical devices of detective fiction (e.g., explaining everything away in the last few pages in long speeches), its only real weakness to my mind is Asimov's overreliance on one particular exclamation. I swear, Lije Bailey, the protagonist, says "Jehoshaphat!" a hundred times throughout the book if he says it once. In real life, people may have habitual exclamations, things they say a lot, and this might pass without too much notice, but in writing, even a few repetitions of a particular phrase starts to feel like overuse, which means that many usages begins to feel like the offending character has some sort of disorder. (less)
This is a really fun book. It's essentially an exploration and adventure story, but with a crucial difference: the protagonist, Barlennan, is a fiftee...moreThis is a really fun book. It's essentially an exploration and adventure story, but with a crucial difference: the protagonist, Barlennan, is a fifteen-inch long caterpillar-like creature who lives on a planet called Mesklin. The core of the book is in the way that this planet's shape affects its inhabitants, their perceptions of reality, and their science. Their world is not round, but rather a flattened elliptical world, a world in which the gravitational force varies from the pole to the equator, being extremely strong at the pole and much less so at the equator. Barlennan and his crew of sailors have made a deal with human scientists to travel to a stranded experimental rocket of theirs, which is in a location that humans cannot physically visit because of the gravitational force. The book shows the reader that journey, from near the equator to a point close to the southern pole, detailing the various troubles Barlennan and his crew face along the way and giving the reader a new way of thinking about what actions are normal, why the technology we have works or is useful, and the advantages and disadvantages of human biology by presenting all things human from the perspective of the Mesklinites and in contrast to their behavior, technology, and biology.
Hal Clement was a science teacher and this is evident in Mission of Gravity. The novel, much like the more didactic Flatland by Edwin Abbott, teaches while entertaining; it explores and illuminates basic tenets of physics (why boats float, why planes fly, the force of gravity itself, etc.) while telling a good old-fashioned adventure story.
What's more, Clement makes the ultimate goal of both human and Mesklinite characters the thirst for knowledge. Barlennan bargains with the human scientists for knowledge about their technology, saying,
"We want to start at the beginning, knowing fully that we cannot learn all you know in our lifetimes. We do hope to learn enough to understand how you have found these things out. . . . I want to know why the Bree floats, and why the canoe did the same, for a while. I want to know what crushed the canoe. I want to know why the wind blows down the cleft all the time--no, I didn't understand your explanation. I want to know why we are warmest in winter when we can't see the sun for the longest time. I want to know a fire glows, and why flame dust kills. I want my children or theirs, if I ever have any, to know what makes this radio work, and your tank, and someday this rocket. I want to know much--more than I can learn, no doubt; but if I can start my people learning for themselves, the way you must have--well, I'd be willing to stop selling at a profit" (219).
In this speech, Clement makes his case for education and for curiosity, placing a higher value on knowledge, ultimately, than on money, goods, or fame. To convince your students/readers of such a thing would truly be a teacher's dream come true, after all.(less)
**spoiler alert** The Demolished Man is, for most of the book, a kind of science fictional Law & Order. There's a murder and then a hunt to catch...more**spoiler alert** The Demolished Man is, for most of the book, a kind of science fictional Law & Order. There's a murder and then a hunt to catch the criminal. In this case, the reader's sympathies are with both the murderer and the cop who must catch him, but the big question remains: will he be caught and punished or will he get away with it? The twist is that all of this happens in a future world full of normal people and telepaths (known as Espers or peepers). There hasn't been a murder in 79 years because the impulse to murder has been impossible to hide from the peepers and, even when the last murders had been committed, the murderers were quickly caught because of the peepers.
In its emphasis on peepers and their relations to normal humans, the book raises questions about privacy and ethics. If you can see what someone else is thinking, is that ultimately a good thing or not? In what ways must the ethical code adapt to this new development in human ability? All of this speculation and philosophical questioning occurs under the surface of the murder narrative, however.
What makes this book really great is not the murder narrative (which is interesting and fun to read), nor is it these philosophical questions, however; what makes this book really great is the turn it takes in the end. Over the course of the book, the weight of attention and perspective shifts back and forth between Ben Reich (normal, murderer) and Lincoln Powell (peeper, cop) and with these shifts come shifts in sympathy on the part of the reader. The penultimate chapter places us in the psyche of Ben Reich as he is broken down by Powell. It is dark and frightening and prepares us to believe what Powell tells another normal:
"Be grateful you're not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sicknesses . . . Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone's a peeper and everyone's adjusted . . . But until then, be grateful you're blind" (237).
If what Ben has just experienced is typical, then this statement rings true. Why would we want to see those things? Why would we want such responsibility? But Powell acknowledges that this was just "some line" he gave this man, not true at all. By the end of the novel, the shift has been finalized and we are completely on the side of and in the mind of Powell. We are left with his version of the story, a version that allows us to redefine the process and purpose of demolition, what it means to be normal or a peeper, and the future of humanity.
As the threat of demolition has hung over Ben throughout the novel, as punishment for murdering his rival, the reader has been led, through Bester's manipulation of our own cultural knowledge and biases, to believe that this will mean the death of Ben, that this is something horrible to be avoided. Ben dreads it, after all, and demolition is certainly a violent image. The process of demolition involves the destruction of the psyche, but that's not all: "The horror lies in the fact that the consciousness is never lost; that as the psyche is wiped out, the mind is aware of its slow, backward death until at last it too disappears and awaits the rebirth. The mind bids an eternity of farewells; it mourns at an endless funeral" (241).
Frightening, but this description contains within it a seed of hope: rebirth. Horrified at the idea that "cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them" (242), the doctor in charge of Ben's demolition says, "But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are sheep" (242).
It is in this redefinition of demolition that the value of peeper society and ethics (as opposed to our contemporary values and ethics) becomes clear. Ben Reich will be rehabilitated, given a second chance to use his gifts, and peepers are not burdened by the awfulness of other people's souls after all, as Powell told the other man, but the ones who are truly free. As Powell says, finally, We see the truth you cannot see . . . That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we'll all be mind to mind and heart to heart . . ." (243). Bester uses this tale of murder, violence, and insanity to make an argument for the deepdown goodness of humanity, a goodness that it is possible to reach eventually. To reinforce this belief, he ends the novel with this statement of hope for the human race: "There has been joy. There will be joy again" (243). (less)
The World of Null-A is a mixed bag. All too frequently I found myself having to stop and re-read sections to figure out basic plot points (and this wa...moreThe World of Null-A is a mixed bag. All too frequently I found myself having to stop and re-read sections to figure out basic plot points (and this was generally because of a basic lack of clarity in key scenes, not because of a particularly advanced concept) and found it difficult to integrate the two major drives of the book, one toward political thriller regarding interplanetary and galactic war and one toward speculation about human and social evolution.
These two drives are definitely related through the basic plot, but they do not feel related; it is a major shift to go from one element of the novel to the other as one is focused on the protagonist, Gosseyn, and his attempts to discover who he is and to survive the warfare and politicking going on around him, and the other deals with the larger picture of null-A society (based on non-Aristotelian, non-Newtonian, and non-Euclidian logic), Venus and its null-A inhabitants, and the politics of the galactic community.
This is really a shame, too, because the novel does contain some interesting speculation about the future evolution of the human species as well as human society (not to mention some fast-paced adventure sequences which make it great fun to read at times). Van Vogt lays out the potential future of mankind in Gosseyn's description of the overall situation:
"We...have witnessed a greedy interstellar empire trying to take over another planetary system, in spite of the disapproval of a purely Aristotelian league. It's all very childish and murderous, an extreme example of how neurotic a civilization can become when i fails to develop a method for integrating the human part of man's mind with the animal part. All their thousands of years of additional scientific development have been wasted in the effort to achieve size and power when all they needed was to learn to cooperate" (169).
What's more, van Vogt provides a model for how this cooperation would work in the Venusian null-A society, which is described as an "ultimate democracy":
"There is no president of Venus, no council, no ruling group. Everything is voluntary; every man lives to himself alone, and yet conjoins with others to see that the necessary work is done. But people can choose their own work. You might say, suppose everybody decided to enter the same profession. That doesn't happen. The population is composed of responsible citizens who make a careful study of the entire work-to-be-done situation before they choose their jobs" (67).
This description provides an interesting counter to Edward Bellamy's description of a utopian society in Looking Backward, which is designed and maintained from the top down, through government regulation (authoritarian), rather than from the bottom up, through the decision-making processes of a group of responsible individuals (anarchist). It's too bad that van Vogt does not develop this society and its implications further. Null-A society is clearly meant to be seen as utopian and as achievable, but the novel is more political thriller (a la The Bourne Identity) than utopian novel or political novel (with a coherent argument to be made). (less)
Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan begins by tearing apart the structures of American (and Western) culture and then replaces the values of hedonism, pri...moreKurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan begins by tearing apart the structures of American (and Western) culture and then replaces the values of hedonism, pride, and religiosity with those of kindness and love.
The primary method he uses to tear down the old value systems is a cynical, satiric black humor. For instance, on Titan, Salo, a Tralfamadorian, has built statues modelled on the human behavior he has seen. Here is one: "There, at first glance, was a young man without vanity, without lust--and one accepted at its face value the title Salo had engraved on the statue, Discovery of Atomic Power. And then one perceived that the young truth-seeker had a shocking erection" (288-89). And another: "a Neanderthal man, his mate, and their baby. It was a deeply moving piece. The squat, shaggy, hopeful creatures were so ugly they were beautiful. . . . The title he gave to the Neanderthal family derived from the fact that the baby was being shown a human foot roasting on a crude spit. The title was This Little Piggy" (289). In these statues, human behavior and values are ruthlessly satirized.
Religion is just as thoroughly derided. After a failed Martian attack on Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, by virtue of being able to see the future, controls much of what happens in the book, creates a new religion, "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent" (180). This religion takes as its central tenet that God does not care and preaches that "puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God" (180). An excerpt from a sermon is provided as an example of the way the religion works: "O Lord Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or driven us into the madhouse lies slain!" (215). With this, Vonnegut masterfully uses religion's own rhetoric and stylistic flourishes against it, showing how ridiculous it all is, while simultaneously presenting an approach to the world that is fundamentally based on the rationalist belief that freedom from the "big eye in the sky" and its demands is as true a freedom as there can be.
Most of the book is in this satiric mode and is most certainly not a happy, touchy-feely treatise on how to love one another, but, in the end, the only value that Vonnegut espouses (apparently) uncritically is that of love, as illustrated by Boaz's relationship with the harmoniums of Mercury and by Constant and Beatrice's eventual falling in love. Boaz, given the choice to leave Mercury with Constant, opts instead to stay with the harmoniums because he can make them happy. He tells Constant, "I ain't never been nothing good to people, and people never been nothing good to me. So what I want to be free in crowds of people for? . . . I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I'm doing good, and them I'm doing good for know I'm doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home. And when I die down here some day, . . . I'm going to be able to say to myself, 'Boaz--you made millions of lives worth living. Ain't nobody ever spread more joy. You ain't got an enemy in the Universe'" (213-4). There's perhaps an element of madness in his decision to live out the rest of his life alone in a cave in Mercury, but his logic can't be faulted: he is happy and he is making others happy. What else is there? Vonnegut reinforces this idea later in the book as well, when Constant tells Salo that "a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved" (313). (less)