A Question of Balance

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, published by Doubleday, original © 1972. (Originally published in the Galaxy Magazine and the World of If magazine in 3 installments.)B Gods Themselves

Even today, after reading, and re-reading, Asimov for almost 40 years, I still encounter a book by him that I haven’t heard of before, which is not too surprising since he wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 books over his lifetime, and not surprisingly, the new finds always turn out to be very good reads. This book is a great read and one of his most interesting and original sci-fi stories.

In 1957 Asimov published The Naked Sun, his last original, adult sci-fi novel until 15 years later when The Gods Themselves was published in 1972. Asimov had lost his confidence in writing science fiction in the late 1950s, believing that the genre had passed him by, but fate and circumstance stepped in early in 1971, at a New York science fiction convention, to bring him roaring back to his natural calling and eager fans.

Asimov describes his inspiration and determination to write a new sci-fi novel in the introduction of a reprint:  A Dedication of Some Length to The Gods Themselves published by Easton Press in 1986:

…Then, on January 24, 1971 at a science fiction convention held in New York City, I was in the audience listening to Robert Silverberg and Lester del Rey carry on a public duologue on the subject of s.f.  In the course of this, Bob had occasion to refer to some chemical isotope — any chemical isotope — to make some point, and after a moment’s hesitation, said, “Plutonium-186.”

Naturally, when the duologue was over, I accosted Bob, in order to tell him (with considerable glee) that there was no such thing as plutonium-186 and could not be.  Bob did not, however, wilt under this demonstration of his scientific illiteracy but said stolidly, “So what!”

“So this,” said I. “Just to show you what real ingenuity is, I will write a story about Plutonium-186.”…

Having thrown down the gauntlet, Asimov sets out to produce a novel that the sci-fi community agrees is one of the best, and rightly so, original science fiction novels ever written, winning both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for that years best novel; a binary feat reserved for the crème de la crème of the genre’s writers.  Asimov, to add an exclamation point to the awards and his fan’s acclaim, states that this novel is his favorite work of fiction: quite a statement for such a prolific and successful writer.

In the 22nd century everyone is running out of energy, the Earth, red giants, the “Energizer Bunny”, parallel universes: everyone. In The Gods Themselves, a seemingly win-win solution comes from an alien world in a parallel universe; the exchange of mass between their universe and ours, due to the differences in the governing physical laws, creates unlimited and free energy. As usual, altruistic motives do not apply, and the exchange of matter, as it turns out, for the not-so-free energy, will cause the eventual, and uncomfortably soon, destruction of Earth.

The novel is divided into 3 parts; the first part is an Earth perspective with, as Asimov describes, a bluesy “downbeat”, a vision of an alien existence in the second part with another bluesy “downbeat”; and the 2nd part truly does contain some of the most original and imaginative sci-fi narrative ever written, and a third part described from the moon inhabitant’s viewpoint, ending the novel on a jazzy “upbeat”.  “A wonderful read, is The Gods Themselves” claims Yoda, draining the force of its negative energy.

Do Evil — Do Good

Proteus by Morris West, originally published by William Morrow & Co., original © 1979.B Proteus

Morris West spins a tale of combating evil within the confines of the Old Testament God: an eye for an eye, a wrong to beget a wrong. Victims of evil can forgive, but a witness to evil must act.  When the legal structures of the western world, the democracies of the free, fail the meek and the weak who shall rally for their cause, raise and carry their banner, storm their Bastille?

John Spada, the righteous, millionaire industrialist, protagonist, and leader of the secret international organization: Proteus; saves the meek, rescues the innocent, teaches morality, one evil deed at a time. Spada and Proteus pick up where governments fail; achieving the freedom of the weak through the commission of criminal and immoral deeds.  Spada wants to free all the prisoners of conscience, the political prisoners held by the depraved and savage governments of the world.  To bring about their freedom murder and the threat of genocide are tools that he and Proteus are willing to use and do.  Inhumanity opposing inhumanity achieves what?  In this book it brings Spada only his death and infamy.

West produces a sophomoric and almost comic plot of moral paradoxes, matching evil deeds with evil deeds, opprobrious acts with no yin to balance the yang.  Ouroboros’ cycles of life and death sans a meaningful life. A novel, opening with a decent plot but poorly executed and a truly abominable ending, but maybe West didn’t have any answers in the struggle against the ever encroaching darkness; just pinpricks of light in the far distance.

Illuminati for Dummies

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic, originally published by Stone and Kimball, original © 1896.B Theron Ware

Harold Frederic, 1856-1898, photographer, journalist, and author, son of Presbyterians, practicing their religion in the churches of Methodists, growing up among immigrant Catholics in upstate New York, adopted a skeptical view of all religions in adulthood. He lived an idiosyncratic life as an unbuttoned, avant-garde individualist, stating near his untimely end in 1897, “I live wholly to myself because I like to live an unshackled life…”. In 1884 he moved to London, bringing along his wife, Grace, and their 5 children, working as a correspondent of the New York Times. He later set up a second household in London with his mistress, Kate Lyon and had 3 additional children by her. His premature death in 1898 left both families in financial difficulty.

Frederic wrote 10 novels, 23 short stories, 2 volumes of non-fiction, and countless newspaper articles over his short life time, but he did not achieve critical acclaim until the publication of his seventh novel: The Damnation of Theron Ware in 1896.  Two other novels followed, Gloria Mundi and The Market Place, cementing his legacy as an accomplished author, on par with, but better known, contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Stephen Crane. The posthumously published, The Market Place, was a financial success, alleviating his family’s financial duress.

The Damnation of Theron Ware, likely not autobiographical, but certainly expanding on the author’s experiences growing up in Utica, New York, is a story of a young, naive, married Methodist preacher: Theron Ware, who is posted by his bishop, to a small, conservative, poor congregation in a fictional town in the very real and ancient hills and forests of upstate New York.

Through his witnessing of an Irish worker’s fatal injury, he is innocently introduced to a beautiful, intelligent, but wild, Irish-Catholic young woman named Celia. This encounter sets off a series of faith questioning episodes with this woman and her friends: a priest and a cynical and urbane Catholic scientist; accelerating the protestant minister onto the fast, yet short, road to perdition.  His ensuing infatuation with Celia separates him from his wife. His education at the hands of the Catholic trio separates him from his faith and church. His conversion to religion without god and comprehension separates him from the Catholic trio or more precisely, the Catholics separate from him.

His innocence is gone but his education is incomplete. He is damned.  He concludes that his salvation lies in politics.

Elephants, Magicians, and Zombies: Oh My

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein by Robert A. Heinlein, published by Tom Doherty Associates, © 1999.

Robert A. Heinlein, the dean of science fiction writers during his lifetime, the first among equals, the first among the 20th century big three: Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein; began his writing and publishing career with short stories and novellas. He first appeared in printB Fantasies Heinlein with a 1939 short story titled Life Line, published in the pulp fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. He published 29 short stories and novellas before publishing his first novel in 1947, Rocket Ship Galileo.  (Heinlein did write a novel in 1939, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, but it remained unpublished until 2003, 15 years after his death.)

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein is a collection of 8 short stories and novellas written between 1940 and 1959, illustrating why he was selected as the first Grand Master, in 1974, by The Science Fiction Writers of America.  The line between fantasy and sci-fi is a fine one: the majority of these stories have one foot in each realm with the scales tipping towards the fantastic. I had read all these stories individually many years ago, and I enjoyed them then, but they are still fresh and fun to read today, maybe more so, since they are all packaged together, chronologically, allowing the reader to assess Heinlein’s progression as a writer and story-teller through the years. Below are the short stories and novellas contained in this compilation.

Magic, Inc., © 1940, with an alternate title of The Devil Makes the Law. Magic, Inc. makes the rules until Amanda and Archie take charge.

–And He Built a Crooked House, © 1940. You may run out of time when building your house or maybe your house will run into time.  The title to story was a spoof on the English nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

They–, © 1941.  Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean your mentally ill.

Waldo, © 1942, written under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald. Anson was Heinlein’s middle name. Magic makes the world go around.

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, © 1942. Artistic endeavors usually need some touch up paint.

Our Fair City, © 1948.  It’s hard to dance with a whirlwind when you have crooked feet.

The Man who Traveled in Elephants, © 1957.  A good life, a few good friends, great beginnings. Heinlein considered this his best story.

“–All You Zombies–“, © 1959. Punctuation-wise, word-wise, a strange title; you need to read a few words short of the end to figure it out.  While you are reading, Ella Fitzgerald may be appropriate background music; spring, …time, can really hang you up the most.

Calling Collect?

The Listeners by James E. Gunn, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, © 1972.

James Gunn presents, successfully and almost convincingly, a fictional account of theB The Listeners emotional, the psychological aspects of searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life: the prerequisite human attributes that a project of this scope requires for a conclusive outcome; mainly the possibility of multiple human lifetimes of tediously seeking something that may not be there.  Gunn postulates the persona needed to continually believe that we are not alone in the vastness of space, someone with the temerity to risk his fruitful years in a quest that will likely fail, his ability to stay the course through countless days and nights of monotonous failure, of a nothingness convulsing his cerebral core to a mush of hopeless sadness.

Gunn illustrates the personalities that it may take to forge ahead with a SETI project of interminable searching, a human that believes he is right in searching the heavens for intelligent life, a human that believes we are not alone in the universe, a humane that believes that all that is needed to succeed is perseverance.

This works in Gunn’s fictional world because the searchers find what they are looking for, an advanced civilization 45 light years from Earth that wishes to impart their collective wisdom to us.  The aliens cryptically convey to us, in their initial message, that they are dying, and as a consequence, pose no threat to our species or planet, allowing humanity to respond with impunity, without risk of triggering an apocalypse.  It’s fiction and everyone does love a happy ending.

The technical side of this novel doesn’t work so well, but sci-fi novels read, coincidently, 45 years after they are published rarely do. Steam turbine powered cars, humongous computers with silly parts, the Arecibo radio telescope with 18 light years of reach capturing 45 light year distant messages, are a few of the distractions, but in the end the visceral concepts are credible suppositions even if the mechanical details of future life lack ingenuity and artistry. A confusing, and possibly superfluous, message presented in the novel is of fictional economic societal solutions, amounting to not much more than welfare, instituted to foster stability and peace, coupled paradoxically, with a prescient passage from a 1968 techno-predictive book, The Year 2000, by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener concerning an individual’s responsibility to society:

The year 2000 conditions could produce a situation in which illusion, wishful thinking, even obviously irrational behavior could exist to a degree unheard of today. Such irrational and self-indulgent behavior is quite likely in a situation in which an individual is overprotective and has no systematic or objective contact with reality. For example, there are probably many people for whom work is the primary touch with reality. If work is removed, or if important functions are taken from work, the contact these people have with reality will be to some degree impaired.  The results-minor or widespread-may become apparent in forms such as political disruption, disturbed families, and personal tragedies-or in pursuit of some “humanistic” values that many would think of as frivolous or even irrational.

Contributing to this book’s bond with its reader, and cementing its science cred, are non-fictional extracts from the author’s contemporaneous big thinkers on extraterrestrial life, such as Freeman Dyson and Carl Sagan, liberally sprinkled throughout the “even-numbered chapters”.  One of these excerpts, embedded in the “2nd chapter”, a remark from Frank D. Drake from 1960, can serve as the basis for the book’s plot:

Those who feel that the goal justifies the great amount of effort required will continue to carry on this research, sustained by the possibility that sometime in the future, perhaps a hundred years from now, or perhaps next week, the search will be successful…

Theater of Nothing

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, first English language version published by Grove

B Waiting Godot

French-English Edition

Press, © 1954.

Samuel Beckett, Nobel winner for literature in 1969, wrote, in a feverish 5 year period of creative over-achievement, immediately following the end of WWII, his most consequential plays and novels:  Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier. The Nobel Committee praised his written creations as a new form of novel and drama; dubbed the “Theater of the Absurd” by Martin Esslin in 1962. The Committee explicitaly sited Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, written in 1960, as the definitive works for this new style of writing, exceedingly worthy of tribute and fortune.

Waiting for Godot is a play, in two acts, expressing sorrow and discontent with life’s emptiness, but has no substance beyond the existential context of one’s self providing the essence to fill the void of a barren plot, and not surprisingly, everyone does. Interpretations of existential, Freudian, Christian, sexual, political, all these forms, and more, have found their way into their perception of Beckett’s true allegorical meaning of  Waiting for Godot. Beckett provided little clarification on the play’s meaning except to restate what he had written, maybe as ploy to maintain interest in the play, but likely because he felt that the play said all that could be said, eventually, expressing his frustration with all the misinterpretations of the play, by exclaiming  “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.”

Waiting for Godot will amuse you and likely, you will discover its true essence.

Everyone Gets An Upgrade

The Atlantis Gene (The Origin Mystery, Book 1) by A.G. Riddle, published by A.G. Riddle; © 2013B Atlantis Gene

The Atlantis Plague (The Origin Mystery, Book 2) by A.G. Riddle, published by A.G. Riddle; © 2013

The Atlantis World (The Origin Mystery, Book 3) by A.G. Riddle, published by A.G. Riddle; © 2014

Science Fiction is replete with original, creative and amazing stories of the future and future’s past; Herbert’s feudal future checked by a hulking nematode in his Dune series; Asimov’s stories of future doom and mitigation in the Foundation series; Card’s tales of adolescent potency and adult deception in his Ender’s series. RiddleB Atlantis Plague‘s Origin Mystery trilogy is not one of these original and creative stories.

The trilogy explores an alternate history of mans origins, portending a simple plot of who controls who and for what purpose, but quickly gets lost in extraneous details and insignificant sub-plots.  Reading Riddle is the printed expression of ADHD, character development is stunted and dribbled out in brief disconnected chapters that come back together eventually, after they have slipped from your memory, only to bifurcate again; sub-plots within sub-plots within plots, tentacles going everywhere and nowhere, impulsively going off on tangents to explore another unnecessary point. B Atlantis World

Originality and gifted writing does not live in this book.  Most of the topics and plots have been done before and usually better. Dialog and narrative are 1 and 2 dimensional.

…Dorian rushed forward and struck Ares, killing him in one blow. The Atlantean hadn’t expected it, and Dorian fought like a feral animal with nothing to lose.

Striking one blow and fighting like a feral animal are not congruent actions.

…Dorian rushed forward, killing Ares again…The cycle repeated twelve times, and twelve dead bodies, all Ares…on the thirteenth resurrection, Ares stepped out and held up his hands…Dorian rushed forward and killed Ares again.

Occasional changing up the verbs keeps the monotony away and Live Die Repeat, the movie, already did this scene – creatively better.

Steven King’s greatest achievement, The Dark Tower series is a captivating and deliciously fun 5000 pages of dystopian fantasy that will go down as one of literatures greatest creative endeavors. The punitive sin in the entire series was the creation, the introduction of a new character, Patrick, the destroyer of Mordred, in the last 100 pages of the series, solving King’s plot dilemma with an eraser.  Riddle pulls the same amateurish stunt towards the final chapters of his trilogy, introducing the god-like Sentinels, a deceitful writing ploy, but thankfully it euthanized the tale.

Riddle should have kept this to a single volume, forcing a simpler, crisper plot line.

%d bloggers like this: