Looking back: 2001

The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey suggested that we would have extensive space flight in 2001. That turned out not to be the case. What we did get was the September 11 attacks on the USA and the military conflicts which followed. Nevertheless, NASA commemorated the film with the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Films of 2000 included the superb The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, several good animated films (including Monsters, Inc., Shrek, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), the wonderful French film Amélie, some war movies (Enemy at the Gates was good, but Black Hawk Down distorted the book too much for my taste), the first Harry Potter movie, and an award-winning biographical film about the mathematician John Nash.

In books, Connie Willis published Passage, one of my favourite science fiction novels, while Ian Stewart explained some sophisticated mathematics simply in Flatterland.

Saul Kripke (belatedly) received the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy for his work on Kripke semantics, while Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard (also belatedly) received the Turing Award for their work on object-oriented programming languages (both these pioneers of computing died the following year).

The year 2001 also saw the completion of the Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Armenia, which I have sadly never visited.

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2009.

Perelandra: a book review

Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Y. Craft)

Having blogged about Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength, the first and last novels of the “Space Trilogy” or “Cosmic Trilogy” by C. S. Lewis, I should also mention Perelandra, the middle volume.

While Out of the Silent Planet is science fiction, Perelandra is better described as religious fantasy (with portions of what could be called supernatural horror). However, in a 1962 discussion with Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, Lewis states that “The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labors in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then, of course, the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.” When Aldiss responds “But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose,” Lewis replies “Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.

The basic idea of the floating islands of vegetation on the ocean of Perelandra (what we call Venus) may have came from the novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (XII§4), after mankind has chosen to exterminate the native civilisation of Venus (something that Stapledon seems to approve of, but which Lewis explicitly criticised in Out of the Silent Planet): “Man now busied himself in preparing his new home. Many kinds of plant life, derived from the terrestrial stock, but bred for the Venerian environment, now began to swarm on the islands and in the sea. For so restricted was the land surface, that great areas of ocean had to be given over to specially designed marine plants, which now formed immense floating continents of vegetable matter.

In Chapter 3 of Perelandra, when Elwin Ransom first arrives on Venus, there are some wonderful descriptive passages, which go far, far beyond Stapledon’s bald statement: “It seems that he must have remained lying on his face, doing nothing and thinking nothing for a very long time. When he next began to take any notice of his surroundings he was, at all events, well rested. His first discovery was that he lay on a dry surface, which on examination turned out to consist of something very like heather, except for the colour which was coppery. Burrowing idly with his fingers he found something friable like dry soil, but very little of it, for almost at once he came upon a base of tough interlocked fibres. Then he rolled round on his back, and in doing so discovered the extreme resilience of the surface on which he lay. It was something much more than the pliancy of the heather-like vegetation, and felt more as if the whole floating island beneath that vegetation were a kind of mattress. He turned and looked ‘inland’ – if that is the right word – and for one instant what he saw looked very like a country. He was looking up a long lonely valley with a copper-coloured floor bordered on each side by gentle slopes clothed in a kind of many-coloured forest. But even as he took this in, it became a long copper-coloured ridge with the forest sloping down on each side of it. Of course he ought to have been prepared for this, but he says that it gave him an almost sickening shock. The thing had looked, in that first glance, so like a real country that he had forgotten it was floating – an island if you like, with hills and valleys, but hills and valleys which changed places every minute so that only a cinematograph could make a contour map of it.

It’s a great pity that Venus is nothing like that at all.

Lewis wrote Perelandra while a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Much of the rest of the book consists of conversations about theology and moral philosophy between Ransom, the scientist Weston (who first appeared in Out of the Silent Planet), and Tinidril, one of the two “people” on Venus. Tinidril corresponds to Eve in the Bible, so that we get a sort of alternate history of the “Temptation of Eve.” Weston is possessed by a “Force” that turns out to be Satan or a demon. As a former academic myself, it is interesting to see Lewis’s ascending hierarchy of potential moral failings:

“RANSOM: ‘Does that mean in plainer language that the things the Force wants you to do are what ordinary people call diabolical?’
WESTON: ‘My dear Ransom, I wish you would not keep relapsing on to the popular level. The two things are only moments in the single, unique reality. The world leaps forward through great men and greatness always transcends mere moralism. When the leap has been made our “diabolism” as you would call it becomes the morality of the next stage; but while we are making it, we are called criminals, heretics, blasphemers. …’
‘How far does it go? Would you still obey the Life-Force if you found it prompting you to murder me?’
‘Or to sell England to the Germans?’
‘Or to print lies as serious research in a scientific periodical?’
‘God help you!’ said Ransom.

The chart below shows a chapter-by-chapter frequency analysis of various names and words in the book (some obvious synonyms were also used in counting words, and characters mentioned but not appearing are included). There is also a chapter-by-chapter polarity (sentiment) analysis at the bottom of the chart.

When one considers the theological subject matter, the conflict with the Un-man, and the underground scenes towards the end, the novel is a little reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, but the final chapters are far more like the Paradiso, and (in a letter) Lewis himself tells us that some of the conversations between Ransom and Tinidril draw on Matilda in the Purgatorio. Aspects of the conflict between Ransom and Weston recall the interaction between Frodo and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, while other aspects of Perelandra are like visiting the Elves. It is not a simple book.

Goodreads rates the novel as the best of Lewis’s trilogy, giving it 3.99 out of 5. I’m giving it five stars, but readers not interested in theology or moral philosophy would no doubt rate it lower.

5 stars
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis: 5 stars

Out of the Silent Planet: a book review

Since Mars is on my mind right now…

Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C. S. Lewis (1996 cover by Kinuko Craft)

C. S. Lewis is famous for the Narnia novels, but more than a decade before they were written, he published Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis was to write two sequels (I have blogged about the last volume, That Hideous Strength). However, Out of the Silent Planet is essentially science fiction, while the sequels are better described as fantasy.

Considered as a work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was a pioneering novel. It followed (and was influenced by) novels by H. G. Wells, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon, but preceded the work of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, and other British science fiction authors of the “Golden Age.” Lewis’s novel was one of the first to sound a cautious note about human colonisation of other planets. In his 1958 essay “Religion and Rocketry,” Lewis describes the rather sad results that human colonisation could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

Lewis’s word hnau (sentient being) was borrowed by James Blish in his alien-contact novel A Case of Conscience. In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis brings colonisation to a halt after three deaths; Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Word for World Is Forest is one of many where exploitative colonisation runs its course. Several ideas in the 2009 film Avatar can be traced back to classic novels that were, in turn, ultimately inspired by Lewis.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis introduces not one, but four, sentient species living in harmony with each other: the hrossa (farmers and poets), the séroni (scientists and philosophers), the pfifltriggi (artists, miners, and engineers), and the eldila (angels, essentially).

The scientist Weston actually recommends exterminating the inhabitants of the planet to make room for humans, claiming “Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life … is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amœba to man and from man to civilization.” (this was an idea seriously suggested in the 1920s and 1930s, but one which was perhaps seen for what it was after World War II). The businessman Dick Devine simply wants to exploit the inhabitants for profit. Only the hero, Elwin Ransom, is interested in them for who they are.

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet while a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

The science in Out of the Silent Planet is surprisingly good, considering that Lewis’s area of expertise was English literature. No doubt Lewis ran his ideas past the scientists at Magdalen College. There are some clangers in Lewis’s discussion of gravity onboard the spacecraft, and he no doubt knew that the theory of Martian canals was obsolete (although Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury were still using the idea of canals in the 1940s and 1950s). Lewis does an excellent job of explaining the impact of low gravity on Martian life, of pointing out that space is not “dark and cold,” and of describing the need for oxygen on the Martian surface.

He learned from the sorn that he was right in thinking they were near the limits of the breathable. Already on the mountain fringe that borders the harandra and walls the handramit, or in the narrow depression along which their road led them, the air is of Himalayan rarity, ill breathing for a hross, and a few hundred feet higher, on the harandra proper, the true surface of the planet, it admits no life.

Bringing in a specialist linguist (Elwin Ransom) to decipher the Martian language is a neat trick (and one repeated in Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade). Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien may have been an inspiration for this character.

Lewis’s naming of the planets. Out of the Silent Planet is set on Malacandra (Mars).

Lewis’s special interest was Mediaeval and Renaissance literature. In Out of the Silent Planet he is taking the cosmology of Dante’s great trilogy (see my discussion of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) and putting it through a Copernican Revolution, while retaining the Christian worldview. Naïve correspondences with Dante should be resisted, however, since Lewis was not originally intending to write a trilogy. If one absolutely must draw links, Out of the Silent Planet would probably correspond to the Purgatorio, with its emphasis on permissible vs wrongful desires.

Goodreads rates this ground-breaking novel 3.92. I’m giving it four and a half stars.

4.5 stars
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis: 4½ stars

Fairy tale retellings

Little Red Riding Hood, as depicted by Gustave Doré (1883)

A few years ago, I blogged about fairy tales. “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952, and Richard Dawkins had done exactly that.

Fairy tales are stories that have stood the test of time, and that means they have power. That power can be harnessed to teach science to children, but I don’t want to talk about that today; I want to talk about fairy tale retellings, which have become popular again in recent years.

It seems that Einstein did not say “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” – but fairy tales do develop the imagination and speak to the human heart. And retellings keep fairy tales fresh.

Fairy tales are generally classified as fantasy, and most retold fairy tales fall within that genre too. Among my favourites are the dream-like novels of Patricia A. McKillip, including In the Forests of Serre (2003), which incorporates Slavic tales of Baba Yaga and the Firebird. In fact, pretty much everything that Patricia A. McKillip has written is superb.

“This Mortal Mountain” (1967), a novelette by Roger_Zelazny, collected in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (1971) and This Mortal Mountain (2009)

Fairy tales can be retold as science fiction too. After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In “This Mortal Mountain” (1967), Roger Zelazny mashes together Sleeping Beauty (or “Doornroosje” as I first learned to call it) with Dante’s Purgatorio, in a story of mountain-climbing on a distant planet: “‘A forty-mile-high mountain,’ I finally said, ‘is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit.’ … I looked back at the gray and lavender slopes and followed them upward once more again, until all color drained away, until the silhouette was black and jagged and the top still nowhere in sight, until my eyes stung and burned behind their protective glasses; and I saw clouds bumping up against that invincible outline, like icebergs in the sky, and I heard the howling of the retreating winds which had essayed to measure its grandeur with swiftness and, of course, had failed.”

The spell described in this novelette is purely technological, but yet the story reduces me to tears every time I read it: “The planes of her pale, high cheeks, wide forehead, small chin corresponded in an unsettling fashion with certain simple theorems which comprise the geometry of my heart.”

The Lunar Chronicles, which I have not read, are a series of young adult science fiction fairy tale retellings, so the science fiction spin still exists.

Many fairy tales were originally intended to be scary. The terror of walking through a wolf-infested forest armed with, at most, a knife for protection is something that is difficult to imagine today, when Canis lupus is so much less common in the wild than it used to be. Deliberately swimming in shark-infested waters is perhaps the closest modern equivalent. Added to the wolves, bears, trolls, and giants, fairy tales also frequently have supernatural threats. In Faerie Tale (1988), Raymond E. Feist retells some Irish mythology as the straight horror it was perhaps once meant to be.

Fairy tales can also be retold with great success as Westerns. As with science fiction retellings, the frontier elements of danger and of the unknown help to set the scene. A particularly good example is The Mountain of the Wolf (2016), in which Elisabeth Grace Foley retells Little Red Riding Hood (or “Roodkapje” as I first learned to call it), but with a believable motivation for Red Riding Hood’s presence in the danger zone (I grew up with a Dutch children’s game that acted out the story; Red Riding Hood’s motivation in the original tale always struck me as confused).

Finally, fairy tales can be twisted. The outcome may be altered; the hero may become the villain; the beautiful dragon may be rescued from a ravening princess. This can become very dark, bordering on horror, or it may be light comic fantasy. And amusing recent example of the latter is The Reluctant Godfather (2017), a retelling of Cinderella by Allison Tebo in which the fairy godmother is (a) male and (b) totally uninterested in helping Cinderella out. In the movie world, Hoodwinked! is a well-known example of the twisted fairy tale in its comic form.

So there you have it. How do you take your fairy tales: black, or with cream and sugar?

Dune by Frank Herbert: a book review

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I recently re-read the classic 1965 novel Dune by Frank Herbert. This is Frank Herbert’s best book, and one of the best science fiction novels ever written. It won the Hugo Award in 1966 (jointly with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal) and won the inaugural Nebula Award. It became a quite terrible 1984 film and a somewhat better miniseries.

Parts of the novel are reminiscent of the work of Cordwainer Smith, notably the idea of a desert planet producing spice, and the idea that navigating a faster-than-light ship requires a guild of unusual navigators who can see into the future. However, most of the novel was so original that it became a huge hit when it first appeared. Themes that are particularly notable are those of planetary ecology, intergalactic politics, and unusual human skills.

I have always been moved by Herbert’s idea of a symbolic ecological language that can “arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape” (Appendix 1), and the idea of making ecological literacy a key part of education:

At a chalkboard against the far wall stood a woman in a yellow wraparound, a projecto-stylus in one hand. The board was filled with designs – circles, wedges and curves, snake tracks and squares, flowing arcs split by parallel lines. The woman pointed to the designs one after the other as fast as she could move the stylus, and the children chanted in rhythm with her moving hand.
Paul listened, hearing the voices grow dimmer behind as he moved deeper into the sietch with Harah.
‘Tree,’ the children chanted. ‘Tree, grass, dune, wind, mountain, hill, fire, lightning, rock, rocks, dust, sand, heat, shelter, heat, full, winter, cold, empty, erosion, summer, cavern, day, tension, moon, night, caprock, sandtide, slope, planting, binder. …’
” (Chapter 22)

The unusual ecology of the desert planet Arrakis encourages us, of course, to think more deeply about our own planet (and Arrakis was apparently inspired by the Oregon Dunes here on Earth).

Also fascinating is the idea that the human race has turned away from computers and the Internet, and gone back to training human minds to remember, calculate, and think:

‘Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.’
‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind,’ Paul quoted. […]
‘The Great Revolt took away a crutch,’ she said. ‘It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents.’
” (Chapter 1)

The most obvious theme, and the source of the novel’s action, is the galaxy-wide intrigue between the noble House Corrino, House Atreides, and House Harkonnen; the resulting warfare between them; and the resistance of the desert Fremen to occupation (inspired by Lawrence of Arabia):

Paul took two deep breaths. ‘She said a thing.’ He closed his eyes, calling up the words, and when he spoke his voice unconsciously took on some of the old woman’s tone: ‘ “You, Paul Atreides, descendant of kings, son of a Duke, you must learn to rule. It’s something none of your ancestors learned”.’ Paul opened his eyes, said: ‘That made me angry and I said my father rules an entire planet. And she said, “He’s losing it.” And I said my father was getting a richer planet. And she said. “He’ll lose that one, too.” And I wanted to run and warn my father, but she said he’d already been warned – by you, by Mother, by many people.’” (Chapter 2)

Goodreads rates this classic science fiction novel 4.2. I’m giving it 4½ stars (but be aware that the sequels are not nearly as good).

Dune by Frank Herbert: 4½ stars

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. Smith: a book review

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. “Doc” Smith (serialised 1965)

I recently re-read E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark DuQuesne, the final story of Smith’s Skylark series. Smith, of course, is famous for the Lensman series, which is a bit annoying in places, but which is still full of all kinds of interesting ideas. This book is another matter. It’s just bad. Now poor writing may forgivable in “space opera,” and age may play a factor here too – the novel was serialised beginning in June 1965, when Smith was aged 75, and was published as a book in 1966 (Smith died during the serialisation). This novel has so many flaws, in fact, that I can only mention some of them.

To begin with, the sexual titillation for teenage boys is just over the top. Is there any reason why the characters need to be naked quite so often? Or for one of them to be a stripper? It’s a trifle creepy, to be frank.

The mathematics depicted in the book is also disappointing: “‘Hold it!’ Seaton snapped, half an hour later. ‘Back up – there! This integral here. Limits zero to pi over two. You’re limiting the thing to a large but definitely limited volume of your generalized N-dimensional space. I think it should be between zero and infinity—and while we’re at it let’s scrap half of the third determinant in that no-space-no-time complex. Let’s see what happens if we substitute the gamma function here and the chi there and the xi there and the omicron down there in the corner.’” (Chapter 24: DuQuesne and Sleemet)

Smith is describing simple high-school calculus (integrating a function on a single real variable). Even by the standards of the time (never mind the future!) there was a lot more mathematics out there. Robert Heinlein had no trouble getting that fact across in 1952 in The Rolling Stones / Space Family Stone: “Their father reached up to the spindles on the wall, took down a book spool, and inserted it into his study projector. He spun the selector, stopped with a page displayed on the wall screen. It was a condensed chart of the fields of mathematics invented thus far by the human mind. ‘Let’s see you find your way around that page.’ The twins blinked at it. In the upper left-hand corner of the chart they spotted the names of subjects they had studied; the rest of the array was unknown territory; in most cases they did not even recognize the names of the subjects.” (Chapter IV: Aspects of Domestic Engineering).

And hinting at new, future, mathematics is quite possible too. Isaac Asimov did it in 1942 in the first part of Foundation: “‘Good. Add to this the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations, the…’ He proceeded. As each item was mentioned, new symbols sprang to life at his touch, and melted into the basic function which expanded and changed. Gaal stopped him only once. ‘I don’t see the validity of that set-transformation.’ Seldon repeated it more slowly. Gaal said, ‘”But that is done by way of a forbidden sociooperation.’ ‘Good. You are quick, but not yet quick enough. It is not forbidden in this connection. Let me do it by expansions.’ The procedure was much longer and at its end, Gaal said, humbly, ‘Yes, I see now.’” (Chapter 4)

In contrast, Smith’s novel seems to have the goal of making his teenage readers feel good about what they know, rather than encouraging them to grow (and that applies to both intellectual and moral growth).

A PDP-8 computer of 1965

A related problem (common to Smith’s novels, and indeed to much early science fiction) is the failure to imagine how computers might be used. The novel assumes powerful computers (“brains”) which can both sense and influence the physical world. Yet manual information processing is still the order of the day: “Tammon was poring over a computed graph, measuring its various characteristics with vernier calipers, a filar microscope, and an integrating planimeter, when Mergon and Luloy came swinging hand in hand into his laboratory” (Chapter 9: Among the Jelmi)

Finally, the antagonist Marc DuQuesne (the name is a Genesis 4:15 reference, since the surname is pronounced duːˈkeɪn) is a rather unpleasant kind of Nietzschean Übermensch, and the protagonist (Richard Seaton) is not much better. Julian May, in her excellent Saga of Pliocene Exile (and even better Galactic Milieu Series) apparently based her character Marc Remillard in part on Smith’s Marc DuQuesne. But Marc Remillard repents of his crimes, and atones for them, and is actually interesting to read about. Smith’s novel finishes with DuQuesne as arrogant, as unrepentant, and as banal as ever.

Goodreads rates Smith’s novel 3.8, and some old-school science fiction fans still seem to enjoy it. It was even nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, back in 1966, although it can hardly be compared to the other nominees – Dune and This Immortal (tied winners), The Squares of the City, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (which was re-nominated, and won, in 1967). I give Smith’s novel just one star – but if you are nevertheless intrigued, it is now public domain in Canada and is online there.

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. “Doc” Smith: 1 star

In the Wet by Nevil Shute: a book review

In the Wet by Nevil Shute (1953)

I recently re-read the novel In the Wet by Nevil Shute. Like An Old Captivity, reincarnation is a key part of the storyline. The novel is set partly in the year in which it was written (1953, which was the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) but mostly 30 years in the future (1983). The book is thus rather dated, with the “future” now 37 years in the past. There is also language that would be unacceptable today (“n—-r,” “b–ng,” and “g-n”) and, by modern standards, the novel is both fanatically monarchist and extremely right-wing.

The Hero

One of the things that makes the novel interesting is that the hero, David Anderson, is a quarter Aboriginal (the book expresses an optimistic view of Australian race relations). David is from Cape York. His maternal grandmother is of the Kaantju people, and his father is a white stockman. Born literally in a ditch, David grows up on a cattle station, learning to ride a horse at age 3 or 4, and eventually joins the Royal Australian Air Force. He becomes a pilot in some hypothetical 1970s war (note that the First Indochina War and the Malayan Emergency were both ongoing when the novel was written). After that David becomes a test pilot, rising to the rank of Wing Commander and earning the Air Force Cross. The novel focuses on his transfer to the Queen’s Wing, flying royalty in two aircraft donated by the Australian and Canadian people (while also dealing with some complex politics and falling in love).

The hero in a contemporary Australian Women’s Weekly serial of the novel

The Aircraft

Nevil Shute was an aircraft designer, and the hypothetical fast long-range private jet in this book seems to be based on a planned (but never built) civilian version of the Avro Vulcan bomber. Nevil Shute seems to me to have underestimated progress in the aircraft industry, however, with his reported speed of 500 knots (930 km/h) matched by the much larger Boeing 747, although matching the range of 8000 nautical miles (15,000 km) had to wait for the Boeing 747-400ER of 2000.

The Avro Vulcan bomber

The Society

Nevil Shute’s social prediction is even worse. A visitor to Australia, he underestimates the left-wing tendency in Australian politics, and overestimates the monarchist tendency. He postulates a large drop in the British population (with all kinds of economic consequences), and large rises in the Australian and Canadian populations (see dotted lines in the chart below). Immigration to Australia was, in fact, less than he expected, and much of it was to come from Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Malta, the former Yugoslavia, and (eventually) Vietnam. The UK, on the other hand, was to see substantial immigration from India and Pakistan.

On the whole, I would call this novel a well-written historical curiosity. As an old Danish proverb has it, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Goodreads rates the book 3.86, which is similar to my rating.

In the Wet by Nevil Shute: 3½ stars
(subtract 2 if you voted for Australia to become a republic)

Looking back: 1987

In 1987, my PhD work at the University of Tasmania was beginning to take shape, and I produced a technical report with some preliminary results. I also started a side-project on functional programming language implementation which was to result in the design of a novel computer (a computer, sadly, that was never actually built, although many people joined in on the hardware aspects).

Also in that year, Supernova 1987A became visible within the Large Magellanic Cloud (picture above taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory). The programming language Perl also appeared on the scene, and Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Prompted by a discovery in 1986, physicists held a conference session on high-temperature superconductivity, billed as the “Woodstock of physics.” The immediate benefits were somewhat over-hyped, however.

The usual list of new species described in 1987 includes Fleay’s barred frog from northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland (picture below taken by “Froggydarb”).

In the world of books, James Gleick popularised chaos theory with his Chaos: Making a New Science, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (which Camille Paglia called “the first shot in the culture wars”), and Donald Trump co-wrote Trump: The Art of the Deal (nobody imagined that he would be President one day).

Horror writer Stephen King had a good year, with The Tommyknockers and several other novels being published. The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987, and Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel (it also won the Nebula Award in 1986, the year it was published).

In music, The Alan Parsons Project released their album Gaudi (which included the single below), U2 released The Joshua Tree, and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton released Trio. The Billboard top song for 1987 was the rather silly 1986 single “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Films of 1987 included 84 Charing Cross Road (based on the wonderful 1970 book by Helene Hanff), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Japanese hit A Taxing Woman (マルサの女), sci-fi action film Predator, Australian film The Year My Voice Broke and, of course, the cult classic The Princess Bride (based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman).

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009.

The Crucible of Time: a book review

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner (1983)

I recently re-read The Crucible of Time by science fiction author John Brunner (1934–1995). It is one of the last great triumphant-rise-of-human-progress novels where, in spite of all kinds of natural disasters, the inhabitants of a planet drag themselves through thousands of years of scientific development in order to escape their doomed planet (around the 80’s, science fiction became darker and more dystopian, as indeed, many of Brunner’s other novels are). What makes this novel stand out from a rather dull subgenre is that the characters are not human at all, but are some kind of mollusc. When you can get your readers to identify emotionally with a sort of intelligent slug or squid, then you’ve got serious writing talent: “‘But – !’ She sank back, at a loss. For the first time it was possible to see how pretty she was, her torso sleek and sturdy, her claws and mandibles as delicate as a flyet’s. Her maw still crowded, she went on, ‘But I always thought you and Professor Wam were enemies! When I heard you were giving a lecture and she had agreed to reply to you, I couldn’t really believe it, but I decided I had to be present, because you’re both on the other side from my parents. They are crazy, aren’t they? Please tell me they’re crazy! And then explain how you two can be acting like friends right here and now! I mean,’ she concluded beseechingly, ‘you don’t smell like enemies to each other!’

At one level, The Crucible of Time is a strange tirade against religion, having set up a universe in which the religious leaders are, by construction, dangerously wrong. This gives Brunner’s characters some more immediate opponents than the impending disaster itself, but these opponents seem a little too much like cardboard cut-outs most of the time. I was left somewhat confused as to why the universe of the novel contained religion at all. An evolutionary argument was implied, but it didn’t seem to make sense.

The novel (or rather, collection of linked stories) does have some fascinating descriptions of a civilisation that’s built mostly, but not entirely, on biology – in contrast to ours, which is built mostly, but not entirely, on physics. Brunner avoids tedious descriptions by giving animals names that suggest English equivalents. The alien equivalent of a domesticated camel is a drom, for example. The large domesticated water-creatures that perform the function of ships are barqs, briqs, and junqs: “‘Correct! Well, if a mindless plant can find a way to spread beyond its isolated patch, why shouldn’t we? Did it ever strike you that there must have been a first person who pithed a barq or briq, just as there was certainly a first who tamed a junq? Then, folk were confined to continents or islands, and had to trudge wearily from place to place unless they had a drom—and someone, equally, must have been first to ride a drom!’

In a similar vein are words like laq, sourgas, and stumpium (named after the planet Stumpalong). Checking Internet reviews, this aspect of the novel seems to be both loved and hated.

But I consider this novel to be one of the great science fiction classics; it’s well worth a read. See here for a more detailed review and plot summary.

The Crucible of Time by John Brunner: 3½ stars

Superman is boring

Superman, as orginally described, was invulnerable. Having a hero with superpowers that are too strong makes for a boring story, because a good story needs conflict. There are several ways of handling that, of course.

1. Kryptonite weakens my powers

According to some accounts, kryptonite was invented specifically to make Superman less invulnerable and boring (Paul Fairchild explains why this was a bad decision). Kryptonite, of one kind or another, is a classic solution to the problem of an overly strong superhero which, to some extent, has been used by multiple authors. It can be overused, however. If your superhero is always weak, why have such a character at all? A better variation of this approach is for the protagonist to carry his or her own metaphorical kryptonite inside, as some kind of “fatal flaw.”

2. My powers come at a heavy cost

This is one of the easiest ways for an author to ensure that his or her character does not overuse their superpowers. These superpowers may cause pain, coma, physical harm, or other damage that enforces a break between uses of the superpowers. For example, the psychic Greg Mandel in Peter F. Hamilton’s Mindstar Rising and its two sequels suffers severe headaches when his powers are used to excess. Variations of this approach are used in a number of fantasy novels.

3. My powers disturb or frighten me

A good example of this option is Doctor Who, in the eponymous TV series, who often needs to be talked into taking action. The advantage of this approach is that it produces a great deal of interesting dialogue on why the superpowers are disturbing or frightening.

4. I am still learning to use my powers

This option is particularly common in young adult fiction. It allows the author to have an attempted use of powers either succeed or fail at any point; but this makes sense with a young protagonist. The young magician Pug in Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a good example. So is Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. To some extent, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings can be viewed as having a combination of (3) and (4). But, however the author does it, I think that some limitation on superpowers is essential for a story to remain interesting. What do you think?