Something Besides Iraq

23 Apr 2003

Paul R. Potts

I’m not going to talk about Iraq today; opinions are long-hardened, and I need to think about something more bearable. I’ve been raiding the Ann Arbor Public Library. Here’s what Paul has been reading, in approximate reverse chronological order, with some brief reviews.

Connie Willis: The Doomsday Book

A beautiful book, but very grim. It uses time travel without resorting to techno-babble or paradox; it portrays the middle ages without resorting to crude stereotyping. It is a bit hard to call it “uplifting,” but it does express dramatically the notion that we are all called to be saints to one another, and that ordinary people can come close to that ideal. The story is moving. It gets hold of the reader’s feelings but the manipulation is deft. I’m looking forward to reading more of Willis’s books.

I generally like harder science fiction, but this was a nice break from that, and reminded me that a lot of my favorite “hard” science-fiction writers are really not very good with the “writer” part.

I’m looking over the reviews on Amazon to see what others thought. A reviewer called it “fun.” It seems to me that this is like calling Gorecki’s Second Symphony “fun.” It is a mournful, but ultimately hopeful, book.

The complaint that the book is a bit long is valid. It is almost six hundred pages; a number of the scenes and conversations that take place in the book’s “present” are a bit redundant and some could be combined or trimmed. Amusingly, some Amazon readers think just the opposite; they’d like to see the account of Kirvin’s time in the Middle Ages trimmed. But it does not need to be savaged, just pruned, perhaps by a hundred pages; an awful lot of books could benefit from a similar treatment.

Personally I’m a fan of many longer works and like to see what can be achieved by a long work. But I’m a fast reader; it seems to me that the complainers might weighed the book beforehand, skimmed a few pages to get the style, and then decided that they were not likely to have the stamina to make it to the end. (Then again, perhaps that what they did before giving this excellent novel a one-star revew).

Some of the minor characters are a bit flat – but some people are a bit flat. The characterizations of the household children are amazingly real and unsentimental (her children can be obnoxious, and frequently understand more than the adults think they do). I think being slightly confused by the British English is charming rather than off-putting. The idea that historian studying Middle English today would have difficulty understanding a native of the 1300s seems not only plausible, but likely. Some readers complain that the story moves back and forth between a present- day epidemic and the time of the Black Plague: but it seems to me that this juxtaposition is precisely what makes the book’s point.

Robert L. Forward: Rocheworld

This is the author’s longer, preferred version of what was originally a short story, later lengthened into a somewhat longer novel. It is a bit patchy: it seems to me that the more-recently revised portions are better, and the overall result flows a little awkwardly, but I have not read the original versions to compare. I’d rate this as somewhat second-rate Forward, but this is still better-than-average hard SF.

The genre is science fiction in the tradition of Dragon’s Egg, but this is not quite up to the standard of that classic novel. Forward’s human characters are quite weird. They veer wildly between John Glenn test-pilot stereotypes and all-too-human lonely geeks in fuzzy pajamas. I’m not sure I would call them realistic, but they are at least entertaining.

As usual for Forward, the aliens are more interesting. In this case they are mathematical brilliant, brightly-colored underwater clouds who don’t have technology, create no artifacts, and spend most of their time surfing. If you don’t think too hard about the evolutionary biology (why develop great intelligence if there are no predators and you are virtually immortal?) they are great fun.

Forward is a very sharp physicist and speculates brilliantly about Rocheworld, a binary planet composed of two small planetary bodies in an extremely tight orbit, one covered with water, one dry. He’s a firm proponent of the axiom that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. The humans are never quite prepared for what they find around Barnard’s Star, just as I doubt we would be. His sail-based propulsion is convincingly drawn; as in Dragon’s Egg, the physics are described in more detail in an appendix.

Less convincing is his solution to the problem of keeping humans alive for decades on interstellar journeys: rather than the undergoing the usual cryogenic “cold sleep” to slow the metabolism and prevent boredom and psychosis, his humans take a drug called “No-Die,” which prevents them from aging, but has the unfortunate side effect of reducing them, mentally, to first-graders. This is mostly annoying, although mercifully we are not forced to endure very many scenes with of the adult crew reduced to children. There are also some minor subplots that could have been left out without harm. One of the more interesting is the ethical furor over the fact that the journey is one-way. This is of slightly more than academic interest: it may be, for example, quite feasible with existing technology to send humans to Mars. Sending them enough fuel to manage the return trip is, given the cold equations of entirely another order of difficulty. Would you volunteer for that one-way mission?

Some of Forward’s predictions seem laughably out-of-date already: he’s got great mobile and highly intelligent robots that assist the crew and even “live” on their shoulders or in their hair, but the equipment needed by a character to edit images and video is a bulky console that can’t be moved from room to room. This is particularly funny given that I’m writing this on a five-pound portable equipped with iPhoto and iMovie. It’s just more proof that science-fiction writers can’t necessarily predict the real future any better than the rest of us, but it can still be a lot of fun to watch them in the attempt.

Robert L. Forward: Starquake

A somewhat less-than-stellar sequel to the wonderful and highly influential Dragon’s Egg. If you’ve read Dragon’s Egg and liked it a great deal, you will find this worth reading; if you only slightly enjoyed the first book, don’t bother. Foreward doesn’t come up with anything truly innovative for the sequel, and it has not aged as well as the first book.

(To come: Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace, Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures, more…)

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