I recently bought a complete run of my favorite SF magazine-- If, later known as Worlds of If. Which is great-- but I need to make some room for it. And that needs I need to clear off the shelf that's been holding all the books I've wanted to write something about for the last, oh, 16 months or so... So, in the order they're piled up next to me...
I Am Not a Serial Killer and Mr. Monster by Dan Wells
I mentioned these in my "best things I read this year" list for SF Signal's Mind Meld a couple months ago. They're not SF, but rather supernatural young adult mysteries with a horror edge (or is that horror stories with a mystery edge?). They're of some interest for, surprisingly enough, Dickian reasons: their protagonist is a teenage sociopath who desperately wants not to end up a serial killer (hence the title of the first book). I liked Wells' approach to his emotionless hero: this is a portrait of PKD's "android mind" from the inside. (Credit this connection to my recent research and writing about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
Pretty good stuff, though a bit slow to start. I am not too big a fan of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels-- the first one is good, but feels like juvenilia; the three that follow are... let's say "meandering." (I suspect I'd like the short stories more.) The first hundred pages of Terraphiles meanders in a similar way, basically depicting the teatime conversations of a handful of far-future socialites. Wikipedia tells me it's an homage to Wodehouse. Shrug. But when the classic Moorcock mythology starts up, things get a bit more interesting-- the whole "struggle for balance between the cosmic forces of Law and Chaos" thing is exactly the sort of scale that Doctor Who thrives on. And there are a couple characters that would have fit brilliantly in the Tom Baker era-- the two-headed space pirate Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men are particularly inspired. This definitely made me want to dig a bit deeper into Moorcock's more deliberately mythological stories, certainly.
Makers is basically a novel about Disney World-- I think it's a deliberate update/cannibalization of the ideas from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The central characters are a pair of culture-hacking inventors who create a theme park-cum-art installation that can be identically reproduced anywhere in the world, and is entirely open-souce and modifiable by any user-- basically the polar opposite of the rigidly controlled Disney ideal. What interested me most in the novel was the extent to which "the ride" becomes a sort of religion for its devotees. One character, a one-time Disney devotee who goes by the ubergoth nickname "Death Waits," puts it this way: "There had been a time... when he'd really felt like he was part of the magic. No, the Magic, with capital letters. Something about the shared experience of going to a place with people and having an experience with them, that was special. It must be why people went to church." This reminds me of something. I rather like Doctorow's novels, but I rarely find anything to say about them; religion is not exactly high on his list of priorities. The one thing I hated about Eastern Standard Tribe-- probably my second-favorite of his books that I've read, next to Little Brother-- he wrote my alma mater out of history. At one point, a character states that Harvard doesn't have a divinity school. In the audio version of the novel, Doctorow puts in an aside saying that he had received a number of e-mails about this, and that the point of this statement was to say that "they don't have one... in the future," or something to that effect. I just don't buy it, and I don't see what the point is. There's a lot of questions begged by such a minor detail-- not just questions about cultural shift, which I assume is what he was getting at, but questions about institutional politics and departmental financing. HDS has been there for a couple centuries, and it's not going to disappear so quickly that people in a near-future novel should be able to get away with assuming it doesn't exist. (end slightly ranty aside). So, yeah, Disneyland as a religion. That's pretty interesting, and the first hint I've seen in any of Doctorow's works in the direction of some sort of understanding of the kind of communal experience that is central to a lot of people's experience of religion.
Pleasure Model and The Bloodstained Man by Christopher Rowley
No theology here, but something worth noting, however briefly. These are the first two novels in Tor's "Heavy Metal Pulp" line, a series of self-consciously pulpy adult-theme-filled SF, à la Heavy Metal magazine. I didn't go into these with high expectations, but I was impressed with the spirit of fun in these books-- they read like a particularly compelling half of a good Ace Double.
The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank by Christopher Miller
An intriguing book from its form alone: this book is written in the form of an encyclopedia on the work of its imaginary titular character, with alphabetically-organized entries written by two of the foremost experts on his life and work, who happen to deeply hate each other. At first I thought its picture of "Dank" was a bit too cruel a caricature of Philip K. Dick, but it soon became clear that Dank has very little to do with Dick at all, initials aside. He's more like a cross between Kilgore Trout and Ignatius J. Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces: an off-putting, obese imbecile who writes intriguing trash. One of the two encyclopedia authors hates Dank, which reminded me of Thomas Disch's slanderous The Word of God. But other than that, the PKD material in this novel is all on the surface. It's an entertaining book, to be sure, but trying to read PKD into its title character-- or vice versa-- would be headache-inducing, so it's best not to try.
I picked this up after reading Adam Roberts' brief mention of it in his History of Science Fiction (which was excellent-- hopefully more on that soon)-- Roberts calls it one of the best SF novels of 1987, arguing that it was overlooked because it was a licensed tie-in novel rather than a standalone "literary" work. I have some growing bibliographical interest in licensed novels, so I figured this might be a good one to look into. I don't know that I can entirely agree with Roberts' accolade-- I'd have to see what else was published that year-- but it was definitely enjoyable. Most intriguing to me was the novel's explanation of Vulcan theology. According to Duane, the presence of God is not a mystery or a matter of faith for Vulcans, but a reality that they experience directly. The Vulcan word for this is a'Tha, translateable as "immanence." Spock states: "a'Tha is the direct experience of the being or force responsible for the creation and maintenance of the Universe... Vulcans experience that presence directly and constantly. They always have, to varying degrees. The word is one of the oldest known, one of the first ever found written, and is the same in almost all of the ancient languages." Spock even implies that this constant experience of the divine may be one of the driving forces behind Vulcan logical enquiry:
"Humans have no innate certainty on this subject and therefore must hink it would solve a great deal. In some ways it does. But there are many, many questions that this certainy still leaves unresolved, and more that it raises. Granted that God exists: why then does evil do so? Why is there entropy? Is the force that made the Universe one that we would term good? What is good? And if it is, why is pain permitted? ... They are all the same questions that humans ask, and no more answered by a sense of the existence of God than of His nonexistence... It takes more than the mere sense of God to create peace. One must decide what to do with the information."
Haldeman's 1997 novel is a thematic sequel of sorts to his 1974 classic The Forever War (discussed here)-- it takes place in an entirely different universe, but explores similar ideas of the morality of war and peace. Forever Peace is centered on wars fought remotely, with professional soldiers undergoing extensive surgery to allow them to control distant robotic soldierboys." Most of the world south of the Tropic of Cancer is embroiled in permanent war, with U.S. corporations funding soldierboy invasions to repress guerrilla rebellions. The main plot involves two discoveries that threaten this world's status quo-- one of a doomsday weapon that could recreate the Big Bang; the other of a means for eliminating human aggression using the "jacking" technology behind the soldierboys. The apocalyptic implications of the first are clear. It's the moral conundrum posed by the second that I find the most interesting. Enlightenment-style humanism is the moral bedrock of much SF, according to which free will is an absolute good above pretty much all others. The bad guys brainwash; we know the good guys have won when their freedom to choose is no longer threatened. Forever Peace throws that moral picture into question. If we really did have a means of eliminating aggression and fostering permanent peace, how much would it matter if some portion of free will were thereby suppressed? If literally countless lives could be saved, isn't that worth more? In this novel, the possibility to eliminate the greatest human evil moves from theory to reality, and its use is urgent. I'm reminded of the doctrine of "expedient means" laid out in the classic Buddhist text the Lotus Sutra. In this text, the Buddha tells a parable about a burning house full of children who don't know it's burning, and don't want to leave. So their father tells them a lie-- that there are three spectacular kinds of carts for them to ride on, far more fun than any of their toys inside. When the children arrive outside, he gives them all the same kind of cart to carry them to safety. They may be disappointed-- but at least they won't burn to death. In the Lotus Sutra, this parable is intended to explain how the varying practices of the three main branches of Buddhism can lead to the same goal: the means are not important, but the end-- nirvana and the end of suffering-- is. Where suffering is involved, the Lotus Sutra argues, the ends justify the means. Forever Peace applies this argument to the question of war. Wouldn't true and lasting peace be worth the sacrifice of that portion of free will that makes war possible?