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Monthly Archives: February 2016
Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who gave us Tarzan, published this novel first as a magazine serial and then released it as a completed novel later on. It’s always an interesting experience to read classic sci-fi, especially when it’s this classic. This pulp legend is loaded with so many tropes it might make the modern reader toss it aside in disgust; except that none of these were tropes when this book was written. And why are they tropes? Because they were amazingly successful and popular, and thousands of writers who succeeded Burroughs tried to imitate what made the John Carter books what they were. These, along with C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, were the primordial space operas.
John Carter, ex-civil war soldier and Southern gentleman, is mystically transported to the planet Mars in a fashion that feels more like fantasy than science fiction to the modern reader, except that almost everything that happens after that is sci-fi to the core. John Carter finds that as a denizen of Earth he is considerably stronger and can leap incredible distances compared to the native Martians, who are adapted to Mars’ lesser gravity; which, of course, would be exactly what would happen by all laws of physics and biology, if Mars were actually inhabited (though this is also ignored in some places; for instance, Martian riding beasts have no trouble carrying John Carter, although he is certainly more dense, and therefore much heavier, than the people of Mars, which is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants.)
Carter initially finds himself among the savage green men, who are twelve to sixteen foot tall green, four-armed aliens with great tusks like orcs; where he, through a strange combination of coincidences and misunderstanding of social custom, finds himself both a prisoner and a chieftain; and he teaches the green men about friendship, loyalty and benevolence, which are qualities they have forgotten because limited resources on the dying world of Mars have demanded a more savage way of life of its denizens. Then he ends up meeting the more human-like, more technologically and culturally advanced (but smaller and weaker) red men of Mars, where he meets the princess who motivates him to acts of heroism that read like mythology; which of course also make the John Carter books the primordial planetary romance.
As a modern reader I found that I was impressed by much of the implied technology, which included but was not limited to anti-gravity vehicles, terraforming, and the rudiments of nuclear power and plasma weaponry (described as being powered by radium or something similar.)
Aside from the fact that this standard story formula has become the essence of the default science fiction plotline and setting (clearly guiding, among other things, the standard plots of the original Star Trek series,) I can see so many direct influences in many other ways. The Gor novels are essentially Barsoom updated, kinkified and taken to the extreme; the Dark Sun novels borrow the “savage world of limited resources” setting whole-hock, and I think we even get the fact that Mork hatched from an egg from this novel, since the people of Barsoom are born thus. We even get our scantily-clad heroes and heroines from Burroughs’ work; the Martians wear jewelry and combat harness, but not clothing.
There is much to irritate the modern reader if you allow it to. Racism and sexism is rampant, as is the hypocritical logic of Colonialism, and as I’ve said, it’s full of what have become tropes. The writing of the time is prone to contrived plot conveniences and dei ex machinae. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, which of course is considered bad writing by modern convention. And yet it’s a damn good read that keeps you pressing on to the very last page. It took me only a day to burn through it even though I don’t have as much time to read as I would like on working days.
Refreshing, however, to the modern reader, is the fact that despite his Colonialism, John Carter is a man who tries always to do the right thing as he sees it at the time, and in this age of dystopias and anti-heroes, this is like a breath of fresh air. And the style is an easy read that is appropriate for everyone from teens to octogenarians and up.
Everyone who considers themselves a sci-fi or fantasy fan should read this book, whose influence is clearly underrated. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, the tropes.
Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I waited eagerly for this to arrive from Amazon, since this was going to be the book for January for my SF Masterworks book club, and it seemed like it would never arrive. However, that’s because it was shipped from the UK. It got here on the fourth and I started reading it right away. I chewed through it pretty quickly, partly because it was an excellent book and partly because I was really sick with the flu and thus I had the time.
Delany apparently wrote this book at the age of 23 in the 1960s, and because of that, a lot of people are quick to judge him as being “in love with his own cleverness.” I think that’s a characterization that wouldn’t have been made were people not aware of that tidbit of information. I will admit that Delany does have a habit of lecturing his readers, even about subjects that he doesn’t really know as much about as his characters should.
Rydra Wong, the clever, strong, brave heroine of the piece (who might be a bit of a Mary Sue; but hey, cut Delany a break, this was a strong female sci-fi protagonist in 1966!) is a famous poet and a cryptographer in a far future where humanity has settled in the far-flung corners of space. One might think that these are contradictory skills, but Rydra is perhaps a bit autistic, having been afflicted with a plague as a child that may have caused brain damage, and is a bit of a savant when it comes to languages and communication. That “knack” extends into even reading the subtle nuances of body language and muscle tics, and might even border on telepathy.
There is a war going on between Invaders and Alliance (never thoroughly explained; the Invaders are some kind of enemy aliens but the Alliance also includes aliens). A general discovers that some kind of a code they dub “Babel-17,” is being broadcast over radio receptors right before major mechanical disasters happen to major Alliance military targets. He asks Rydra, the best cryptographer he knows, to crack it.
Realizing this is not a code but a language, Rydra decides she must track down the speaker of this language and understand it, and decides to go in search of it. The language doesn’t reveal much initially but does tell her where the next “accident” will be so she goes there, after first recruiting a bizarre hodgepodge crew. What follows after explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language forms personality and consciousness, in an unforgettable crazy space opera romp with an unforgettable ending.
I find myself thinking of this novel as “proto-cyberpunk.” Babel-17 is likened at one point to computer languages and it is used to program machines. The working class people (called “Transport” as opposed to the stiffly proper white collar “Customs”) are prone to enormously transformative surgical alterations that make many of them look anything but human, nontraditional relationships, odd customs, and the use of discorporate (read: dead but preserved as energy) people to do jobs that live humans simply couldn’t do. I was reminded very much of the world of Joan D. Vinge’s “Catspaw” and I can’t help but think that if Delany had been born twenty years later, this book would have contained a lot more internet or cyberrealm equivalent. All the elements of what will become cyberpunk are here. I love this colourful world, so vividly realized in such a short novel.
I also love the protagonist. What a breath of fresh air in 1960s vintage science fiction! She’s marvelous! Some reviewers have found that her abilities stretch credibility, but really, if you read carefully, she’s amazing at just one thing; reading and understanding people. That ability serves her well in many capacities, including poet, cryptographer, starship captain, diplomat, and rogue.
I suppose it may not be to everyone’s tastes — my partner found it dull, but then again he doesn’t share my interest in how language forms consciousness either. Personally, I’m glad I had to buy this book to read it because I’m sure I’ll read it again. Highly recommended!
Book Review: Changer of Worlds by David Weber and Eric Flint
Changer of Worlds by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Okay, to be fair I started this book a fair bit of time ago, read about two and a half of the four novellas in it, and then my partner decided to read it and hid it on me. I found it again a month ago or so but wanted to finish reading the book I was on before I went back to this one.
These are some very well-written stories, and because they lack the usual Weber info-dumps, they’re among the best written Honor Harrington stories I have yet to read. And I have to warn you, unlike many short stories that center around an ongoing novel series, you kind of have to read these or some things will make no sense to you in the later books.
Fortunately this will almost universally be a pleasure. The first story, “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington,” is a direct homage to “Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” which is wonderful since the Horatio Hornblower books are part of what inspired Weber to write this series in the first place, and why it’s such wonderful space opera. Here we get to see Honor Harrington, great captain and general, as a mere midshipwoman on her “snotty” cruise. Lots of action, typical Navy politics . . . wonderful stuff for any Honor Harrington fan.
The second story, “Changer of Worlds,” provides some wonderful insight into the ways of the other major intelligent species of the Honorverse; the treecats, who are not just cute telepathic kitties. No indeed.
The third story, “From the Highlands,” introduces us to some other major characters in the Honorverse and what they’re up to; including Victor Cachat, Peep intelligence agent, Anton Zilwicki, the world’s most unlikely Manticoran Navy intelligence officer; Cathy Montaigne, renegade Liberal eventually to be a force to be reckoned with in Manticoran politics; and the Ballroom, a secret terrorist organization of escaped slaves dedicated to wiping out slavery by whatever means necessary. Oh yes, and Zilwicki’s daughter Helen, a force to be reckoned with on her own. This story, written by Eric Flint, is full of his subtle humour, sharp wit, and clever plot and counterplot elements. It reads just like a spy thriller with some comedy thrown in. Great stuff!
The only story I thought we could have done without was the last one, “Nightfall.” This was basically what happened when Secretary of War McQueen took on the Secretary of State Saint-Just just before the end of “Ashes of Victory.” I suspect it was originally included but Weber’s editor, in a rare act of prudence, cut it and told him it wasn’t necessary. I agree; it wasn’t necessary. Since we already read how it started, and we already knew how it ended, and it was just a lot of pain and bloodshed in between, and we didn’t learn anything about any of the characters or the events, I don’t see the point of it.
So; three out of four great stories ain’t bad. Well worth reading, anyway.
Book Review: War of Honor by David Weber
War of Honor by David Weber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There’s nothing like being sick to make you finish the reading you’ve been wanting to get done, especially when you just aren’t up to doing much else. So I finally powered through War of Honor.
The books in this series come in two types; really action-oriented, and really political. This was one of the political ones. And yet this wasn’t nearly as dry as most of the political ones. At the start of the book, a coalition government forced upon the Queen of Manticore by an unholy alliance of the Conservative and Liberal Parties has been in power for four years. At the end of the last book they had just accepted a ceasefire from their long-standing enemies, the People’s Republic of Haven, despite the fact that the Manticoran Navy had them on the ropes and could have ended the threat they represented once and for all. In the four years since, the corrupt government has not officially ended the war so that they could take advantage of wartime tax measures for their pet projects, and have stalled peace talks. Despite this, they have assumed military superiority over the Peeps, and have demilitarized much of their Naval forces, as well as suspending most of their building projects. They have also swept most of the useful Naval commanders into the grey realm of half-pay, and have appointed their cronies — mostly insufferable bureaucrats with little to no combat experience — into key positions in the Navy. Key to the plot, this also affects their intelligence sector, which is commanded by a complete incompetent. The First Admiral of the Navy is none other than Admiral Janacek, whose personal hatred for Honor Harrington and Earl White Haven leads him to assume exactly the opposite of anything at all that they suggest. And they are also doing their very best to be so rude to everyone who is part of the extended Manticoran Alliance that they have almost succeeded in alienating all of them.
Of course the Peeps, who have had another coup and have restored their ancient Constitution, thus becoming the Republic of Haven or the Republicans, have not been idle. They have assigned their best tactician to a top secret R&D project called Bolthole which intended to address the military superiority that the Manticorans had — and to much better effect than anyone dreamed. Their elected President is a former intelligence operative who was working against the corrupt Peep government, and their Secretary of War is the man who personally led the coup that resulted in the new government. They are trying to negotiate with the Manticorans in good faith, despite the attitude of their present government, because they really don’t want another war. But if all of this weren’t bad enough, the man they are stuck with as their Secretary of State, Giancola, is manipulating negotiations by altering official documents to build up tensions for his own purposes.
Weber does a marvelous job of setting up this train wreck, which is what most of the book consists of, although he insists upon breaking it up with a tedious “love that cannot be” subplot between Honor and White Haven. Which gives him a pretext for having the Admiralty hang Honor out to dry at Sidemore, caught between a rock and hard place with ships so obsolete there would be nothing she could do if things actually hit the fan.
It might strike people as being a bit unrealistic, but being a Canadian under the Harper government taught me that it most certainly isn’t.
Honor survives (of course, or that would be the end of the series). I have to admit that it’s a bit tedious that again she’s the only one that does any substantial damage. And there sure was a lot of praise for her abilities from the mouth of one of the benevolent antagonists in the Republican Navy! Yawn. I do wish Weber would stop that.
But the tension did keep me reading right through to the end, so what can I say? Obviously I stuck with it and it certainly wasn’t boring! But neither would I go screaming from the rooftops about how absolutely wonderful this book was. So, good, but not great is my verdict.