Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)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.

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Symphonies of the Planets

Although space is a virtual vacuum, this does not mean that there is no sound in space.  Sound does exist as electromagnetic vibrations.

Through specially designed instruments, the Voyager, INJUN 1, ISEE 1, and HAWKEYE space probes used Plasma Wave antenna to record the vibrations of the planets that they visited that are within the range of human hearing (20 to 20,000 Hz).

To be fair, however, they are often quiet; quiet enough that they are difficult, if not impossible, for the human ear to hear.

The recorded sounds are the complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the Solar Wind, ionospheres, and planetary magnetospheres.  Here’s a sample of some of the recordings released by NASA:

Here is a recording (and photos) of the noise of the Singing Comet, 67P, as recorded by the Rosetta spacecraft (though in this case the volume has been increased by 10,000 times):

And here is a full playlist of the Symphony of the Planets.  These five CDs, which are now out of print, were created from the complex sounds recorded by the Voyager probes.

Yes, really.  This is real world stuff I’m talking about, not just Arcane Space!

So if you’d like to imagine what it sounds like aboard a Spelljamming ship, picture that the closer you got to a planetary body, the more of this kind of sound you would hear.  It would start as faint, water-like popping noises.  Then you would wonder when the wind noise had started.  Then you might notice a high-pitched drone like a wet finger on crystal or a Tibetan singing bowl.  In some cases (Suns, large planetary bodies) you might notice a low droning buzz, like the sound of a WWII airplane.  The closer you got to the planetary body, the louder it would get, and when you reached a planetary gravity plane, it would be a veritable cacophony to ears accustomed only to the creak of the ship, the flap of sails and the quiet of the Void; which would fade again into the background once you hit atmosphere and terrestrial noises began to reach your ears.  Or you might be sailing along in space, likely with continual distant popping sounds that would be more rapid the closer you were to the center of the sphere, and all of a sudden a Solar Gale might whip wind and ringing and high-pitched drones through the air envelope.  In which case, a sargasso might be heralded by a sudden, deafening silence.

 

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.

Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.

The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.

Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.

Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.

In short, read it. It was amazing.

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Book Review: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the true heady wine of science fiction crafted by the hand of a master. (Quoting Terry Pratchett, which he was saying in regards to “Cities in Flight” by James Blish, but it fits here).

I saw the movie years ago, when I was almost too young to understand it. As always, the book was much better.

I see no reason to reiterate the plot; everyone knows it by now I’m sure. I want to talk about the craft of the writing. The style. The way he writes with a minimalist hand, like Miyamoto Musashi, doing nothing which is of no use.

The first part of the book reads like a spy novel. The second part reads like a space suspense thriller, with the style of the writing being as stark as the setting. Which is why the lush, vividly detailed conclusion is like suddenly really seeing colour after ingesting hallucinogenics; in addition to being mind-blowing in its scope and concept.

The scene where Dave confronts HAL? It’s even creepier in the book than the movie. I felt terrible for a malfunctioning, murderous computer. How do you even do that? That is just good writing.

So even if you haven’t read it because it’s a cultural icon and a classic, read it because it’s just well written. And don’t be discouraged by the title; it reads just as easily today as it did when it was written.

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Review: Echoes of Honor by David Weber

Echoes of Honor (Honor Harrington, #8)Echoes of Honor by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was . . . maddening.

On one hand, it told the tale of Honor Harrington and crew trapped on a deadly prison planet and trying to escape with deadly risks, dangerous all-or-nothing chances, and a crew of ne’er-do-wells and unlikely bedfellows. Brilliant, awesome, edge of your seat sci-fi action adventure in the highest degree.

The other half was a technical manual and a struggle in politics on new technology that would change the balance of the fictional war that is the focus of the series. Total yawnsville. Worse, you *have* to read it, because if you don’t, you won’t understand a damn thing about what happens in the rest of the books.

I am reminded of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which is about one half the awesome story you know from the Broadway musical and one half a political dissertation. And not Game of Thrones politics either. I skimmed the political bits.

Equal parts awesome and frustrating. But the essential story was fantastic, so I must rate it more highly than not.

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Space telescope spies dwarf planet Ceres spewing water plumes

This undated artist’s concept released by NASA and UCLA shows the Dawn spacecraft with Ceres and Vesta. After four years sailing through space, the Dawn spacecraft was expected to slip into orbit late Friday around a giant asteroid Vesta to begin a yearlong investigation into the origins of the solar system.

Read the story here. That’s two in the system . . .