SF Academy 07 – Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun Tetrology.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’

This is my first “Science Fiction Academy” entry in a while, partly because I’ve been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I’ll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I’ve been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I’ve finished a few books that I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I’ve just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I’ve sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those “classics” in decades before and after that range), and I’ve been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It’s such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a “client” (torture victim) with whom he’d fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it’s that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I’ve seen this series referred to as “science fantasy” and though that’s not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

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SF Academy 03 – The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Often I plan out which books I’ll read next well in advance, like a Netflix queue, but with a tangle stack of actual objects lined-up to read. This time at the last minute I grabbed this one rather than the Robert Charles Wilson book I’d planned on.

The Door Into Summer was originally released in 1957. Hey, check out this old paperback cover. Remember when books used to look like that? If you’re old like me, you probably do. This was somewhere near the author’s peak, and this novel is one of Heinlein’s best-regarded works.

It’s a story of a clever engineer named Daniel Boone Davis (though he goes by Dan or DB most of the time), and Heinlein certainly gave him the name “Daniel Boone” in reference to the American folk hero & pioneer. DB possesses a good, confident nature and seems mostly unrattled by the screwing-over dealt him by his fiancee and his business partner. He’s unhappy enough about things, though, that he decides to go in for “the long sleep,” a hibernation newly offered in the 1970 in which the novel begins.

I don’t want to reveal the convolutions of the aforementioned screwing-over, or the jumps forward and backward in time between 1970 and 2000 involved in DB’s efforts to set things right. But this is a cracking good tale, old fashioned in some details and yet fresh and futuristic even a half-century after it was written. Many of the other characters are better-drawn than the protagonist, and some of the more interesting parts of the novel are told in summary, such as Dan’s quick recap of all he learned after coming out of the sleep. This is a book packed with ideas, and it’s a great example of why Heinlein was so influential over the science fiction field for such a long period of time.

One aspect of the story that “feels” a bit strange is Dan’s very close relationship with a girl of eleven or so. They start off as buddies, though young Ricky clearly has a crush on Dan. At some point, after a bit of time-shifting to adjust the relative ages, Dan sets his sights on her as a sort of romantic partner. Without spoiling anything, there’s at least one fairly queasy sequence in which Dan fixates on the little girl as a potential future partner while she’s still a little girl. I wonder if this part raised many eyebrows back in the fifties?

Another surprising element is Heinlein’s inclusion of a nudist couple who become Dan’s friends. The manner in which Heinlein portrays the members of this nudist colony is somewhere between affectionate and admiring, and the only really “good” characters in the book, other than Dan and Ricky, are the two nudists who befriend Dan. There’s nothing too racy in the nudist colony part of the book, but it’s surprising that an author as plainly conservative as Heinlein would be so cool about an edgy issue so long ago. Then again, conservative meant something different in those days, and Heinlein might better be called libertarian. And of course I haven’t read Stranger in a Strange Land yet (scandal!) so maybe I’m the last to discover Heinlein was actually a swinging wildman.

I recommend this book highly, and it’s probably one of the top two or three dozen favorite science fiction books I’ve read. Really a lot of fun, and as I mentioned in an earlier post here, it made me grin quite a few times at one turn or another. That quality, fun, is something I value very highly in a story, and this one’s got it.

The Door into Summer, on amazon.com

SF Academy 02 – Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Last week I wrote about a very well-known, arguably classic, work of science fiction based on a big idea. In case you didn’t read my last post, SF Academy 01 – Ringworld by Larry Niven, I was disappointed with how that big idea was executed.

Today I’m going to focus on a more recently piece of “big idea” science fiction, one that was wonderfully effective by all measures. I’m talking about Spin, a novel from 2005 by Robert Charles Wilson.

Spin
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

In Spin, we observe three young friends, the protagonist Tyler Dupree and his friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, who are brother and sister and whose father is a powerful and wealthy businessman. Soon there is a major event affecting the entire world: the stars disappear, and it is determined that Earth has been sealed off from everything outside by a sort of shield. The sun still appears to rise according to the same schedule, and give warmth and light to the Earth, but it’s not the “real” sun, more of a virtual projection.

Humanity scrambles to figure out what happened, who might have caused this, and there’s an apocalyptic feel as fear and hopelessness take hold. Many aspects of this change are considered, and we see how such a thing might affect religion, business, the focus of scientists, interpersonal relationships. All this wide-angle stuff is seen from the perspective of Tyler, who remains intimately connected to Diane and Jason even as their lives diverge. Eventually humanity gains a better sense of what’s happening and why, and Jason is at the center of these efforts, and this brings Diane and Tyler into closer proximity with the mystery of the “spin.” Tyler has always been infatuated with Diane, and he struggles to find a way to connect with her, and he also has difficulty relating with Jason, who is obsessed with the spin mystery to an unhealthy degree. The matter of the “spin,” what it means, who caused it, and how this unfolds is of course the heart of the novel and I won’t include spoilers here.

What’s interesting and unusual here is the degree to which Wilson keeps this an intimate, human story despite the grand scale of space and time covered by the events in the book. As wide as the scope becomes, everything is always filtered through the perceptions and responses of a small group of people we feel close to, and care about. Tyler himself is not drawn as clearly as Diane and Jason, but we understand Tyler’s feelings for his friends, and it makes the events of the plot more dramatic.

Spin won the Hugo award in 2006 and Wilson has indicated it’s the first book in a trilogy. The sequel, Axis, came out two years later, and it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor. I’ll review that one here soon.

This is a book that delivers on what I consider the ideal of science fiction literature, which is to explore big ideas, convey a sense of wonder, and do so on a human scale so that the story packs emotional impact. Wilson is a mature and sensitive writer, and delivers fantastic events on a massive scale, in a way that feels natural, human and real. It’s very possibly the best science fiction novel of the past decade, and I’d say Wilson is my favorite recent discovery as well.

SF Academy 01 – Ringworld by Larry Niven

I thought about structuring this whole Science Fiction Academy series of posts in some organized way, like laying out the books in chronological order, or in the order I read them, but decided it was more fun to discuss whatever I have the strongest opinion about at the time. And right now, I have a strong opinion about Ringworld, the best-known novel by Larry Niven.

Ringworld Cover

Back in the 1970s, before I had read much science fiction myself (at that time preferring Tolkien and comic books and more Tolkien) I remember seeing a friend reading Ringworld, carrying it with him on the school bus every day for several months. He had such enthusiasm for it, and talked a lot about the cool concept at the book’s center, the Ringworld itself. It’s a giant alien construction far from Earth, encircling its own sun, and with land and gravity and atmosphere very much like a planet. Every edition of the book I’ve ever seen includes a picture of the Ringworld on the cover, which makes sense because the book is about the Ringworld itself much more than it’s about the people or events in the book. If it sounds to you like that might be a problem, that the setting (interesting though this piece of alien construction may be) has precedence in this book over character and plot, you’d be correct. It is a problem.

The book does have a few interesting details aside from the Ringworld itself, weird bits of alien life and technology and lore that apparently appear elsewhere in Niven’s “Known Space” series of stories, of which this novel is part. There’s a fertile inventiveness underlying this novel which make all the more frustrating the problems I’ve hinted at.

Ringworld Alternate Cover

The problems, then. The main character Louis Wu, a 200 year old Earth man who remains physically youthful and vital through futuristic biotech advances, is relatively interesting in concept. As for the sort of identifying traits that make a character, though, I have a hard time of thinking of anything interesting about Louis Wu. He’s sort of a bon vivant, and fancies himself some kind of a lover. I don’t really object to Louis Wu, and if the rest of the characters were as unobjectionable as Louis, this would be a better book.

The book’s premise, stated simply, is that an alien member of a race called the Puppeteers (previously known to Earthlings, but long absent from our planet for unknown reasons) has appeared and introduced himself to Louis, stating that he intends to put together a small team to travel across the galaxy using fancy faster-than-light technology way beyond what the humans possess, to check out some anomaly observed by other Puppeteers who are on a migration across the galaxy (which explains why they suddenly left Earth). This Puppeteer, Nessus, is a strangely-shaped two-headed alien, not the usual Star Trek “human with funny shaped ears or forehead” variety, and supposedly the Puppeteers’ defining trait as a race is their cowardliness. This trait is portrayed without the least subtlety, with a clownish idiocy that reminded me at times of Jar Jar Binks.

Before I get to the remaining characters, this raises my biggest objection to this book, which is the tin ear demonstrated especially by the dialogue, but also the clumsy and awkward writing throughout. Niven writes like a scientist with some neat ideas who decided he could write a novel and had never practiced before or even taken a writing class. I know plenty of readers are more interested in the ideas, especially in science fiction, and if you’re one of those readers, maybe you’re one of those who have made this a “classic” of the genre.

The other characters, then. There’s Teela Brown, a young and beautiful Earth female who is in love with Louis despite barely knowing him, and their 180 year difference in age. Nessus wants to recruit her to the team not due to her skill or experience, but because he believes her to be lucky, asserting that luck is an inheritable genetic trait and that she will be a good luck charm for the group. The way Teela’s dialogue and motivations are written made me wonder if maybe Niven had never actually talked to a real live pretty girl before, and the character felt less real to me than even the aliens.

Ringworld New Cover

The last main character is another alien, a member of a race of catlike warriors called the Kzin whose defining traits seems to be inability to control their tempers. The Kzin and humans have been fighting a series of Man-Kzin wars over the years (more stuff from the other “Known Space” stories, mostly just mentioned as backstory here) and though they fancy themselves fierce warriors, their brashness, impatience and stupidity have doomed them in these previous wars. The Kzin guy in this story is named Speaker-to-Animals and apparently he’s been bred to, well, speak to animals, and be a sort of diplomat rather than a warrior. You’d never know this by his actions, though, as he’s boastful and bullying, cartoonishly prone to violence.

Halo

The concept of the Ringworld itself is intriguing and cool enough to inspire similar ideas such as the Halo video game series, and the Orbital structures in Iain M. Banks series of Culture novels. Some of Niven’s other concepts and general ideas here are interesting as well. I’d love to have read this great big cool idea carried within a more interesting plot, with better characters.

The sentence-level quality of the writing is so poor, especially the excruciating dialogue, I find it difficult to understand the high reputation enjoyed by this book and its author. I began this overview with a memory of my friend reading the book on the schoolbus, at age 14 or so, and I’ve thought of that often as I read this. Science fiction as a genre has often been dismissed as unserious or aimed at adolescent boys, and while that’s generally both unfair and inaccurate, this book specifically seems written for an audience of young boys who’ve just moved up from comic books, but have never had a girlfriend yet. For that matter, the sex scenes here read as if Niven himself had never had a girlfriend when he wrote this.

I’ve re-read some of my other adolescent favorites, which I’ll get to in time, and the problem here is definitely not that I’ve lost the ability to enjoy something like Starship Troopers or Rocketship Galileo. Those were geared toward teens, but written in a way an adult can enjoy.

Unless someone whose taste I trust can argue me out of it, Larry Niven goes on my “never read again” list after this. It’s an A-plus idea with D-minus execution. I realize this book has won many awards and is considered a favorite of many fans, but really I’m guessing there are a lot of readers my age who read this in junior high school and just haven’t revisited it recently enough to discover how flawed it is.

Science Fiction Academy

I haven’t posted here in several months, nearly half a year. It’s not from a lack of interest in what I started writing about here (recent reading and writing for the most part), rather from a desire to focus more on actually doing those things, and worry less about blogging on the subjects, for now.

I’ve been reading a ton — fiction, nonfiction, magazines — and listening to a lot of audiobooks as usual (the old commute), and working very hard on writing fiction. As I blogged earlier, I’ve gone through earlier stretches of intense focus on fiction writing in my life, but since I got started working on electronic music and my Hypnos record label, that had been completely set aside until just over a year ago.

Partly this grew out of the joy of discovering some great new science fiction writers, and also rediscovering some of the books I loved earlier in my life. Partly also, it’s been a response to a nagging sense I’ve had for a long time that sooner or later, I would start writing fiction again. I didn’t want to get back to doing it the way I did in my twenties, with a focus on “straight” literary fiction with a slightly experimental or surreal angle. This, I realized later, was my way of trying to have my cake and eat it too — enable myself to write about “weird” concepts and yet occupy the same accepted and respected literary mainstream of my big heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Coming back to things after a long break, I realized it was important to me to work on the kind of stuff I enjoy reading and watching. My favorite books and films, and the writers and filmmakers I most idolized, occupied a more “fantastic” corner of storytelling. This could include science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even surrealism or absurdism.

In practice I’ve mostly zeroed-in on science fiction stories, though I’ve dabbled with stuff that could be called urban fantasy or occult/supernatural horror. This feels right to me, and I’ve come up with some stories that I love and feel enthusiastic about in a way that never happened with my earlier writing efforts, toward which I felt a sort of detached aesthetic regard that might barely be called admiration.

Also I think the stuff I’m writing is pretty good. I feel better about my chances of getting published now than I did before. It doesn’t feel like buying a lottery ticket when I send out a story to a magazine, more like playing a round of solitaire. OK, I might be more likely to lose than to win at this point, but at least I feel like my chances are better than astronomical.

One thing I’m doing, aside from questioning all assumptions as a writers of words and builder of stories, is trying to shore up my fundamental base of understanding the genres I’m interested in, science fiction in particular. I’ve undertaken a sort of self-study course to reexamine some of the works I loved before, and more importantly to check out the many classics I’d never yet read. This sort of self-taught course in SCIFI 101 has been instructive, but not always in the ways I would have expected. There have been books I’ve read and said “Wow, how could I have waited so long to discover this?” and others I’ve read and wanted to stop before the end, thinking to myself, “What the hell is this crap? Who decided this was a classic?”

It’s caused me to think differently about the relative merits of some names that occupy mostly equal levels in the pantheon of big science fiction names. I mean, if you post a request on some public message board for recommendations of what science fiction classics you ought to read, you’ll get a lot of people suggesting the obvious Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury stuff, as well as plenty of Niven and Anthony and Dick and Sagan and Haldeman, and you know what? Some of that stuff stands up really well, and some of it doesn’t. Some of the ideas are really fresh, and some is quite stale. Some of it is very good writing, and some of it is excruciating on a sentence level. Interestingly, some of the guys with the best “big ideas” write some of the worst sentences and most cringe-worthy dialogue, while a guy who’s a better wordsmith might be lacking in the “sense of wonder” department.

As I continue plodding away through my own Science Fiction Academy, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know only a little, but enough to start asserting opinions, pushing a certain point of view. That’s what I’m going to work on here for a while, a piece-by-piece reporting of what I’ve learned and how I assess some of the major books and big-name writers of the science fiction genre (and other related styles), possibly with occasional diversions into lessons from movies, TV or even art. I’ll tag these entries with Science Fiction Academy, as well as with the relevant names and titles.

I’ll also start to give some more specifics of the stories I’m working on writing.