ORBzine - 1999.03 Book Reviews

ORBzine - Book Reviews - March 1999

by John Kane

Millennium Books, an imprint of the Orion publishing house responsible among other things for bringing Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" series to our shelves, in January began a series of reprint 'SF Masterworks' - genuinely resurrected from the grave, some of them deservedly, Stapledon's "Last and First Men" far more than regaining through breadth and depth of vision what it sheds through inappropriateness, and others, well...judgement withheld, at least; this on a schedule of two per month throughout 1999.

First out of the starting gates is The Forever War, Joe Haldeman, 1974.
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For the totally uninitiated, the war of the title is a conflict between humans and aliens with whom we have, until the very end, no communication other than missile fire with; unknown and inexplicable enemy. It begins sometime in 1996 - he explains that in the foreword, it all makes sense, don't worry about it - and lasts well into the 32nd century, for the character participants at least, because of relativistic dilation. The participants are sent out to fight Taurans while behind them the society they're supposed to be fighting for changes completely, faster than they can comprehend.

It is supposed to be a Vietnam allegory - Haldeman served there, as a combat engineer. It shows.

The war is a hoax, essentially; deliberately provoked by terran military command to preserve their way of life. Science- fictional generals are continually doing this. In real life this is not far short of insane - depending on the theory that you can actually have a war which changes nothing except with regard to the participants, which is never true as long as there are organisations of any sort capable of and willing to react to circumstances - and it doesn't even explain what he's satirising.

What makes it worse is that in Haldeman's world they may actually have a point. Industry, employment, and the general commonweal depends on the production of war materiel, as the hero discovers on his first and only return to earth; a few brilliant but superfluous people are an easily made sacrifice for a situation that ensures this, especially as they're never likely to lose. He sets up an insane situation so well that, for those involved, to do anything other than what they are doing would be criminal incompetence. Under those circumstances, why not provoke a war? Unless you badly misjudge an opponent - and they don't - it's viable.

What does not gel is the continuation of the war through such massive changes in society. At one point, terran society resorts to eugenics, and compulsory homosexuality as a means to prevent spurious freebirths and as a means of birth control; later full- scale monocrop cloning, indefinite numbers of copies of one man and one woman. What end this is supposed to serve in itself beats the smeg out of me. Why they should continue the war- and in fact, they don't, the monocrop- clones- short of sheer inability to make it stop is a mystery.

A key part of having believable SF technology is having otherwise intelligent participants who themselves believe in it.He does that well, but otherwise I can't imagine where the 'faultless' comment of Hamilton's comes from. So much is driven by metaphorical needs rather than the possible (or, as ever, plausible- given- that...)I'm sure he could be much more rigorous if he set out to. Stasis fields are particularly quibbleable. Relativity is his chief tool for manipulating the causality of the war. Ships use effectively instantaneous collapsar jumps, but "Maneuvering into collapsar insertion will put us about three hundred years behind Stargate's calendar by the time we reach" their destination. Horseshit, to put it bluntly. The ship in question can pull 25 'g'- drive system named as 'tachyon drive' but undefined. That's thirteen days twenty-one hours twenty minutes to lightspeed in it's own frame of reference. When all's said and done, relativity is asymptotic. You only start hitting ratios of external to interior time of twenty to one or so up past ninety- nine point nine percent of lightspeed. As Clarke said once, what's three orders of magnitude between friends? Even so, this is a gap.

I'm wary of agreeing with general opinion and surface appearance that it is intended as a satire on Vietnam; it would actually sit better as a satire on the first world war, especially given the casualty rates he quotes. Most importantly, when all's said and done, the book has a happy ending. With reservations, especially for those of the liberal persuasion who like individuality, but the only people Vietnam had a happy ending for were the Chinese- who never liked the Vietnamese anyway and were glad to see America fall flat on it's face- and the Japanese, who took advantage of the nosedive in American confidence to hand out a shattering defeat in their own everlasting economic war.

Earlier comment notwithstanding, it is far and away one of the best novels of military science fiction you're going to be able to find. I doubt it's worth some of the high praise heaped on it- comparisons to Catch- 22 do it no good whatsoever, and there are better novels to have been forged in the experience of Vietnam; Tim O'Brien's works for one author and Bao Ninh for one outstanding novel, but the more restrictive a definition you put on it, the more it seems to stand out among it's contemporaries. As an unqualified 'novel', more than competent, but not much more. As a war novel, apart from the setting it is second rank, not first. (But that way you take slightly longer to be mown down, perhaps long enough to duck.) As SF, much more competently executed than most, but too closely correspondent to reality (as may well be inevitable with satire), failing to follow it's own 'what if...'s through; as military SF, one of the very few examples to achieve the qualities inherent in a genuine war novel, head and shoulders above the competition.

Imagination; derivative, incomplete what if's; C-
Science; hocus- pocus, but internally consistent; C+
Scene- setting; very good, B+
Characterisation; the strongest point, almost uniquely well done in its field, A

Overall; C+

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Vacuum Diagrams

Stephen Baxter's collection of short stories set in the Xeelee Sequence; they make up the spine of his history of the future. Find a copy and look at the praise heaped upon it, and look at who has heaped it upon. Sort of gets you right there, doesn't it?

To be honest, this is one of the books not that reviewers- and fellow authors- judge but that they are judged by the comments they pass upon. In this postmodern age he is the closest we come to a reborn Arthur C. Clarke- and if you thought he wasn't already dead yet, look at the quality of some of the stuff he's produced in the late eighties and nineties.

Anyway. Baxter is a physicist, and although the overall track of the vacuum diagram (literally the case with the plotline) is clearly stylised and imposed from above- rather than simply setting a universe go and watching what happens from there- it works. Allegories in science fiction are possible because it is highly likely that we will organise and build our technology in a similar manner, according to our own hopes, fears and flights of fancy. He manipulates the limits of physical theory, relying on the dimly glimpsed, so well that, as surely as this is where physics will lead us if we can only fund it, the future using these (and given the sadistic viciousness evident, only these) tools, dependent on them, will be the future, or at least something like it. With an entirely imposed and artificial plot, this is no mean achievement.

He is playing with the entire universe, and is not afraid to bend it to suit. He knows the equations which say it can, after all. The universe is being eaten, essentially, by sentient creatures composed of dark matter, nulloforming the stars to their own extinguished preference, which is rather hard on we baryonic lifeforms who are dependent on them. I don't think that anywhere in the Xeelee sequence does the reader actually meet a photino bird or have one have it's say; there are drawing- room (or laboratory) confrontations, but not that one. The photino birds are resisted on behalf of all visible life, but chiefly themselves, by the Xeelee. Who, also, we only see the work of, and boy is it big. A door at the centre of the universe, built as an escape hatch to an alternate reality... this could be considered to be taking the Enormous Big Thing to rather ridiculous extremes. I also have no objection in principle to Starbreakers- the name of which is quite literally appropriate- apart from the chief one of making them handheld.

The overall picture is of an ugly, violent, anarchic cosmos; economics rules, humanity is twice enslaved by alien races- one of which consists of creatures based on convection cells, not hard walled conventional biological ones; they are literally living turbulence patterns. Odd, and very few writers could pull it off. Anything that can be done is. They're just looking out for number one like we would. This is overtaken by the dramatic events of the cycle itself, which unfolds over five million years. The human race survived alien control, achieves a measure of revenge, gradually grows- Assimilation is the term used, and it is probably every bit as harsh- to become the dominant sub- Xeelee species, and then as humans will (and blithely ignoring the photino birds and the threat they pose) attempt to challenge the Xeelee.

After tormenting ourselves, and embarking on a program of cosmic genocide for gain, into a form capable of fighting the Xeelee, we do so, never grasping the big picture, and lose. Rather badly, leaving only a handful of humans left alive to escape, eventually, through the Xeelee hole in the universe.

Other weirdness like helium-7 stars, the Planck- zero AI in the framing story made possible by violations of the uncertainty principle, GUTforces, universes with different physical laws, supersymmetry, control of Machá'ás Principle, Inseparability links, and quagma arks preserving lifeforms from the heart of the big bang, abounds.

The science of it is in inverse proportion to the degree of civilisation exhibited by the participants. Techno- barbarianism is about right- extremely techno, but in the end the heartbreaking cosmic stupidity of the humans and all the races is just too much. On that scale itá'ás hard to focus in any case, but no-one has the wit to stop (there is one fraudulent attempt to do so- humans deceiving themselves). In the end the universe is laid waste, in a collection with by far the highest probable body count of any serious piece of science fiction.

Brilliant but depressing in the extreme (and still not as bad as Titan ), this verges on antiscience, by divorcing science and intelligence. Dumb brutes are all that the universe requires. Technological idiot savants. If this is the future, why bother? Sorry, but great science, lousy humanity.

Imagination; more grandeur than detail, B
Science; could it be better? A+
Scene-setting; well done- only the objective is flawed; B
Characterisation; shallow and malevolent; C

Overall; 'Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?'; B

Cities in Flight

I'm a very contrary reader. Sometimes I pick something of the SF shelves of a bookshop, look at it, and wonder why they can't just tell a human interest story for once, instead of all this derivative, meaningless, dissociated nonsense they don't really understand themselves; remembering Sagan's description in Contact of the mission as 'the most expensive psychotherapy session in human history.' True. The neuroses that drive people to write, and read, science fiction-- a field whose notoriously appallingly low literary standards continue to haunt it to the extent that almost none of it seems worth reading- could be solved with almost trivial readjustment. We're all just infantile hysterics, and cheap, tacky ones at that. Then I wander down to general fiction, pick up one of those human interest stories, and realise why I prefer to read science fiction. We're short on maturity and stability; they're short on intelligence and sense of potentiality.

All in all, it was a strange mood to encounter James Blish's Cities In Flight in, because it is a very odd compilation of the four Okie novels Blish wrote- the first in 1952, the last in 1970, also published as part of the SF Masterworks series. It is another allegory; a story which uses make- believe technology to put far more than usually plausible characters and social situations through their paces. Despite the sharing of some elements with Vacuum Diagrams- and one of these days I must find out who first came up with the possibility of dirigible planets- it comes from the opposite pole. Thank god. Far from the giant cosmic sweep of Baxter, although Blish also prematurely and artificially destroys the universe, it is primarily a cycle of character interaction and political skulduggery.

I really can't speak about Blish's view of the cycles of history, although he admits to believing in something of the sort. He claims to have been heavily influenced by a thinker called Oswald Spengler, and there is an afterword claiming that Blish's societies can be modelled accurately by Spengler's theories of history. Although I deeply distrust such grand schema- reality seems too tangled for anything of the sort to be as accurate as it's makers claim, and they always lead to history by timetable, too great a concentration on what is happening instead of why- certainly Blish was taking this far more seriously than most science fiction authors would, and it clearly shows.

Divergence from our reality begins in 1950; the West chokes itself to death with national security, all vitality passing out of it. It's last great achievement is the joint discoveries of anagathic drugs- a possibility being inched towards even now with experiments on telomerase- and the spindizzy motor, a device which effectively takes the object within the field of effect into a special reference frame of it's own which is limited by few if any of the rules of the external cosmic reference frame. The development of them is the content of the first novel.

The second novel develops the concept of flying cities. A town can rip itself out of the soil with spindizzy motors, fair itself over and add long- duration stores, and take to the stars. Many do. The spindizzy was used briefly, suppressed, and then rediscovered independently by the Bureaucratic State that succeeded the west; they fought a galactic war against the previous dominant force, the Vegan Empire, won, and seeded the stars- with vicious, small-minded, unintelligent lumps for the most part. The flying cities, Okies, are effectively (Blish's analogy) cosmic bees; migrant workers, necessary because of the high degree of backbiting and low level of wit amongst the settled colonists that prevents many things from being done. There was a galactic empire established by the earth fleet that won the war; the earth did not like this, and set out to overthrow that. It almost fell apart of it's own accord anyway. They hire the cities to do things, industrially, they cannot manage themselves; the whole is policed by the earth police, who do not like the Okies but need them too much to stop them. The action in the second novel is centred around one of the cities- New York- and itá'ás inhabitants, involved in a dispute with another rogue Okie city.

It has to be said, this is a science- fiction series fans of crime might enjoy - following the action depends largely on a whodunniteerá'ás instincts. We rarely get to hear what the characters are thinking except in conversation with one another or in situational reverie. Which is a good excuse for only giving away partial details of the plot.

Any economic situation is too dependent on temporary, turbulent factors to prevail for long. In the third novel the galactic currency, backed by earth and based on Germanium, collapses. Itá'ás actually much more complex than the second, involving Vegans, local squabbles, bindlestiff (robber) cities, moving planets, an assault (in the name of currency regulation and free trade) on Earth by unemployed Okie cities, reintegration- much else. Detail would give too much away; all that can be said is that although it is certainly not free of space- opera theatricality, it is very high quality theatricality.

As far as characterisation goes throughout, none of us have led varied enough lives to know people in their every mood and form, so- let us be charitable here- which literary form actually best conveys the actions of people as we know or imagine them will vary from individual to individual; but it's a fair bet that in the vast majority of cases it isná'át SF. Within those limits it is very good, although the maddening reluctance of characters to explain to one another what they have in mind is a seriously jarring note. Bad guys are frequently not really characters at all.

The fourth novel is the one that jars. Blish, in what must be the earliest actual physical, as opposed to guessological, mention of anything resembling an omega point, has the universe collide with itá'ás antimatter twin, sometime around 4104 AD. The action is fought over the chance to get to the collision point, the dead zone at the heart of the event, and have a hand in influencing the starting conditions of the next universe. Fairly cosmic, isn't it?

Imagination; Spenglerian history, realistic economics, cities of earth; combinatory intelligence rather than wild speculation, B-
Science; one equation, and derivatives; if your gizmo runs out of jargon, name it after someone; C
Scene- setting; apart from the fourth novel, first rate; A
Characterisation; dubious in itself but better than average, B+

Overall; B+

The Star Maker

Let's face it; two of the above are 'SF Masterworks' and the third may well be the most lauded collection of the day. Where do I get off rating them as anything less than perfect? Well, I'll tell you. I'm a nihilist. I also have a sense of proportion. In these millennial times, the two are not necessarily contradictory. When you see the world as deeply flawed, also, 'the best there is' might not actually be that good.

Also, when all's said and done, not all SF is perfect. Anyone else who's caught on to Baxter's Godelianism (the only justification for postmodern thought that actually holds water, which is for those of us who like solid universes not a terribly good thing) should be at least theoretically aware of that.

There are many ways, furthermore, of writing SF; from the cheap-scenery potboiler pulp through the other-genre-in- costume, past any number of more or less alert and honest story modalities (following up individual technical and social assumptions) to the heights of genuine speculative fiction, wondering what if, which too few science fiction writers have ever reached, our spearpoint in the claim to serious literary merit; cosmic fantasy being a further, special case- almost theological fiction about the final shape of the universe, our justification for everything else. If we can say that one Stapledon makes up for a thousand Duanes, we can make a claim to have enriched and ennobled human existence instead of merely providing it with a cheap fix of shoddy fakery. Fortunately, I think we can. 2001 was something of the sort - the later novels not up to the same scratch- Valis , Ubik and Three Stigmata fit into the last and greatest category. So would Vacuum Diagrams, if it wasn't such an ugly shape.

Olaf Stapledon's The Star Maker is one of the same proud lineage that had it's birth in Thomas More and John Milton. Obsolete now probably- this is a cheaper, uglier age- as well as largely scientifically inaccurate; a good sense of the possible on the small scale, but on the large, wonderfully optimistic. What actually happens is that a quiet academic, nameless and wandering abroad worried about his life at home, when a vision of the universe falls on him. I do not know whether Stapledon actually believed in psionics or just used it as a framing device; he was an extramural lecturer in philosophy and psychology, which could cut either way. One interesting feature about the Humean bundle-of-perceptions theory of mind is that there is no clear way to establish a boundary between minds...the theory is nonsense, of course, but beautiful nonsense.

The academic is led from world to world, watching events, usually at some point of change- and Stapledon is excellent here in his freedom from mystical nonsense. The simple fact that we are sentient beings based on intellect overlying appetite, surrounded by beings like us, and operating in a vast external universe, underlies much of our behaviour- and through that Stapledon forges an empathic link with the universe that makes us realise that simple facts like shape and life cycle are but accidental- and the differences they make in how the species perceives the primary cycle of life more alien for that underlying identity.

As he passes on- and the book really is a tour d' universe - others join him, a roving eye, a roving mind- he also passes on in time, through the growth of a universe- spanning civilisation; although not without itá'ás problems, and the passage as a whole is certainly not without tragedy, he believes almost the direct opposite of what I have come to believe myself; that it is impossible for a fundamentally get- ahead, predatory civilisation in which the weak are devoured by the strong to make any mark, because in the end it will come to devour itself. Not quite; the powerful just devour or defile anything other than themselves, and you probably need a fairly large streak of the vicious megalomaniac to take your place among the stars. I love the writing and I wish I could believe in it, but it is literally too good to be true. We're condemned to play the role of one of the Mad Worlds, I expect.

As it really doesn't matter what I give away, I can say that the mind of the observer progresses, adding spectators and participants to it in transgenic gestalt, until it becomes a representative sample of the universe, on it's way to encounter the Star Maker.

Who, incidentally, is essentially God. I said it bordered on theology. Not necessarily a Christian God, but definitely a single, unitary deity, although not quite perfect. He creates ad allows creation to thrive, then when it fades repeats the cycle of existence, reaching towards the greatest complexity, the most alive and vital universe.

The book actually raises a very ugly question. It predates the cold war; takes attitudes that we can barely think of now; a faith in and call for the humane behaviour of humans that our predatory society can no longer even pretend it has a thorough notion of, still less room to exercise. Perhaps because of a horror of the alternative that we have keenly embraced. This is so much more fulfilling to inhabit a vision of the human condition that I have to wonder what it was that we did wrongly. Le Carre puts it adroitly; 'We've given up far too many freedoms in order to be free.á'á The need to fight governmental tyranny with corporate tyranny should be over. We have done so much so very badly wrong that, even though parts of this are clearly impossible and other parts crazy, I would much rather be there than here.

Imagination; overwhelming, and humane; A+
Science; fuzzy, but he had faith in the future to do things barely conceivable now; C-
Scene setting; the greatest and grandest scene of them all; A+
Characterisation; a novel of civilisations, not individuals, but those there are are drawn well; B-

Overall; A greatness we are no longer capable of; A+

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