Reynolds, Heinlein, Wolfe, Zindell, and Others

Paul R. Potts

These notes came from a Wiki I used to run; I eventually had to take it down because (1) it had security holes, allowing hackers to gain a foothold on a server at DreamHost and use it to send spam e-mails, and (2) hackers for a time apparently liked to find any unprotected Wikis and use scripts to fill them with spam, as part of a scheme to (I think) increase search engine hits for certain keywords, such as “Viagra.” This is why we can’t have nice things…

It seems that I’m still not ready for Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Short Sun, as I have still not managed to finish it, although I’ve gotten partway through the trilogy a couple of times. It’s time I tried again. Wofe can be so rewarding, but if you become distracted, lose your place, and are no longer “getting it,” then he can be so, so baffling.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

Another space opera installment from Reynolds. I’ve read Chasm City, Revelation Space, and Redemption Ark. I’m waiting on the new Century Rain to be released in paperback and a U.S. paperback release of Pushing Ice. Reynolds is nothing if not prolific!

These are not necessarily timeless classics. This one in particular doesn’t quite live up to Revelation Space, and I may never re-read these books, but they are dense and filled with a kind of religious mania and characters who are weird technology fetishists. That said, these are not potboilers in the sexual sense of the term; for the most part, the characters’ ambitions are about knowledge, power and politics. I think his closest influences are probably Frank Herbert, maybe influenced by his more obscure Destination: Void and sequels (which are sadly out of print). I think also that Bruce Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories are a strong influence, or perhaps Sterling and Reynolds had a common influence.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, by Alastair Reynolds

I purchased an imported British edition from Amazon. This consists of two long short stories or novellas (I’m not sure what constitutes a novella, but these probably do). Both are quite good, and fit neatly into Reynolds’ universe. This one is probably a keeper.

The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein

Yes, I finished it, a mere 26 years after I started reading it, in serial form, in Omni Magazine.

It is better as a serial, at least for the first few parts. This is a strange novel; I enjoy some Heinlein, but this self-indulgent project is a mess. When I first read at it, I had not read Time Enough for Love or Heinlein’s other books, and so the weaving-together of his entire literary history did not make much sense to me. Now, knowing what most of the references refer to, it still doesn’t. The biggest problem isn’t the self-indulgence and bringing in his other characters — that part is actually kind of fun, and when the team travels to Oz or Wonderland or one of Heinlein’s own stories, at least something happens. No, the big problem is this simply isn’t good storytelling.

A great deal happens in the first few pages. The characters then spend the next three hundred pages arguing over who is in charge and what procedures and rules they will follow as they flee from earth in the flying car Gay Deceiver, equipped with the universe-shifting device. It isn’t until around page 300 that they land on Mars and actually have some interesting interactions with someone besides themselves.

This is an attempt at an “adult” Heinlein novel, which is a bit of an oxymoron. Honestly, even though he writes extensively about the incestuous relationships of the Howard family, what one gets is homogenized Ayn Rand applied to sexual relationships, plain vanilla, missionary position, obsessed with cleanliness and bathing, mostly adolescent wish-fulfillment, including sexism so deeply ingrained it is never questioned. The words “Heinlein” and “Erotic” just don’t really go together, especially when the characters spend so much time whining at each other; I’m sure there is Heinlein slash that is much more fun. The illustrations featuring female nudity are oddly incongruous when the writing is, even by the standards of the time, quite modest. But it is a kick to hold in my hands a copy of the very same neat illustrated edition I owned over 20 years ago. It is also inspiring me to go back and read some of Heinlein’s better work.

The Book of the Long Sun Tetralogy by Gene Wolfe

I am a big, big fan of Severian’s story and The Book of the New Sun. I rate it right up there with the absolute best of the best, and it transcends genre. I attempted once before to read the Long Sun books, and concluded that Wolfe had become senile and was now writing juveniles, having abandoned all depth and symbolism in storytelling. I was wrong. In fact it is a highly focused and very complex artistic work, but the story unfolds with a great deal of subtlety, the science-fiction aspects appearing gradually in hints here and there. Beautiful work. I am also working my way through the final trilogy, The Book of the Short Sun.

Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delaney

I keep putting this one down and picking it up a few weeks later. Some of Delaney’s novels are strangely polemical. This seems to be one of them, although I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out what it is all about. It is a little bit disconcerting to have “she” serve as a generic pronoun, including for times when the characters are talking about specific men. I’m not sure if I will finish it, but there is some evocative writing here.

Neverness, The Broken God, and The Wild by David Zindell

I read Zindell’s first novel, Neverness, a few years ago, followed by the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy (The Broken God, The Wild, and War in Heaven). I am now re-reading them all, slowly. Zindell’s books are extremely long and wordy, almost Dickensian, filled with purple prose and histrionic language, but yet I find them worth re-reading because they are also beautiful and poetic. There is a great deal to enjoy in the author’s digressions, inner monologues, and descriptions of space travel conducted via proving theorems in topology, and I’m afraid that it would require a very deft editor to shorten these books without also destroying the parts of them that are beautiful.

These space operas belong to the “human striving to become a god” category of science fiction, and I’m not a big fan of the Extropian types or those that think we need to download our brains or that we will soon all be transformed by a technological singularity. But Neverness is set on a world in which use of technology is rigidly defined, and the society itself is medieval in character, and I’m always a sucker for settings that blend extreme high technology with gritty human stories and grandiose philosophical musing. One of the reviewers on Amazon used a short comment that I agree with whole-heartedly: “well-written but exhausting.” Definitely only for people who have stamina and can appreciate what can be done in a long novel.

The Good, the Bad, and the Difference by Randy Cohen

Assembled from his Ethicist column, this is a light read; Cohen’s pragmatic ethics are not shocking or amazing, but I foudn them interesting. Even the most seemingly pedestrian of concerns (is it all right to sneak your own food into a movie theater? is it all right to buy a cheap seat to a baseball game and them move to a better open seat when the game starts?) led to some great debates with my wife; it was funny how we found ourselves on opposing sides on relatively trivial issues, and why, but came down on the same side on big ones. I was particularly engrossed by the topics on which he changed his mind; it takes a certain courage to spool out your thought process in print, and then admit that you were wrong, and why. The hardcover version poses a lot of famous ethical dilemmas (say, from Hamlet); I’d like to take a look at the paperback edition, where he supposedly took the best of reader submissions on these.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I started reading and immediately started dreading Stephen King, but what I got was a really masterful, well-integrated, magical-realist story. Gaiman’s writing has been carefully stripped of Anglicisms for this book. I’m not certain he achieved a truly American voice, but his tour of small-town life and roadside attractions is fantastic. The book sprouts plot lines left and right, and somehow they all converge. It’s a murder mystery, a story of resurrection, redemption, and all that, and allegorical, but never becomes sappy; many scenes are a kind of antitdote to sappiness: at one point, the protagonist, called Shadow, demonstrates his boredom and sadness by betting on a game of checkers; if he loses, he agrees to allow his opponent, a former “knocker” in a slaughterhouse, to bash in his forehead with a sledgehammer. How he came to this point is an interesting read. Don’t expect a mythology lesson: there are strange gods coming out of the woodwork, and some of them will probably be unknown to you even if you have a passing knowledge of Norse mythology or voodoo, but thankfully Gaiman doesn’t become didactic and start explaining everything. I liked this so much I’m buying a copy for my brother and will probably add a copy to my long-term collection; I also picked up a copy of Gaiman’s book Neverwhere.

Slow River by Nicola Griffith

A story about the kidnapped scion of a wealthy family that holds the patents to various biotech means of cleaning up water. There are some subplots that are hinted haven’t been explained yet, including possible child sexual abuse, intra-family infighting and extortion. The story is told fowards and backwards, interleaving, so we see (for example) a dead plant, and a broken relationship, and then in pieces, the story of how it was acquired. This is a risky technique and could have led to a big confused mess, but so far (I’m on page 100) it is really paying off. The world is a London of the near future where humans have finally been forced to think clearly about the consequences of what we are taking from and putting into the environment. The “slow river” seems to be the water cycle, as it passes through our bodies, the water table, the hydrologic cycle, and the ecosystem. This could qualify it as an annoying environmental polemic, but so far we don’t have to put up with any annoying “telling” — we’re shown how our pollution is the mess that our descendents will be, quite literally, swimming in.

Only Begotten Daughter by James Morrow

Some of the same humor and darkness found in his book Towing Jehovah. A lot of button-pushing; Jesus is in hell, handing out cool drinks that result in euthanasia. Recommended.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2005

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