crap i have read recently #3

nagasaki atomic bombIt’s the back to the future edition!

I found a lovely used bookstore and picked up these sci-fi classics for a just dreamy price.  So now I can check them off my “things I really should read someday…” list.

[obligatory SPOILER alert]

A Canticle for Leibowitz:  Babyboomers get a lot of flak and some of it with good reason.  What you young whippersnappers forget though (if you ever knew it) is that no ‘Boomer ever expected to live this long.   We grew up in a world poised on the edge of total annihilation.   At any moment the button could be pushed and the missiles would fly and the world would end.  We never, ever forgot that and we lived accordingly.  We built shelters, we ducked and covered, we jumped when the sirens went off, and dutifully waited through the tests of the Emergency Broadcast System.  In the 50s we made every effort to be good productive citizens.  In the 60s we became activists and flower children and hedonists.  In the 70s we got depressed turned to disco and cocaine.  And in the 80s when the Wall finally fell and the world stepped back from the brink we got down to some serious overcompensation.  But still, it’s hard even now to shake that memory of having no future at all.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about a world that never stood down.  It begins some 600 years after civilization has been mostly destroyed in the Flame Deluge.  In the aftermath of this nuclear devastation there is a backlash against knowledge and learning of any kind and by the opening of the novel most of surviving humanity is illiterate.  Society has almost entirely broken down and the unwary are likely to be eaten by the “misborn”.    A small order of Catholic monks, founded by a government scientist and eventual martyr named Leibowitz, preserves both a few rare books and the skills necessary to read them at an abbey in the Southwest American wilderness.   A young acolyte of this order, while on vigil in the desert, is led to a cache of pre-Deluge artifacts by a mysterious wandering stranger.  The artifacts, which are mostly technical documents and shopping lists, appear to be relics of  Leibowitz himself and one of the bodies in the fallout shelter may be his wife.  This is huge news to the monastery and eventually it leads to the canonization of Leibowitz as a saint and establishment of the Abbey as an important center of learning.  In the second section of the novel, another 600 years have passed.   The Dark Ages are ending and a new Renaissance is beginning.  Secular scholars challenge the Church’s right to sequester the Memorabilia and one of them comes to the Abbey to examine its artifacts and books.  He finds not only an unexpected treasure trove of documents but also that the monks have begun to use the knowledge in them to build machines.  Political intrigue swirls around the monastery as the various tribes and city states coalesce into power hungry alliances and the primacy of the Pope is threatened.  In the third section, another 600 years goes by and the world is once again technologically advanced.  There are starships and off-world colonies.  And there is also the looming threat of nuclear war.  Two superpowers square off in a cold war that is about to get hot and the monks of the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz prepare to take their precious Memorabilia off world to preserve it for future generations.

A lot has been written about this book; it truly is a literary classic (a word I do not use lightly) of any genre.  Other reviewers have focused on the church vs. state conflict, the cyclical nature of human progress and regression, the value of belief, and the use of symbolism (the wandering Jew, the woman born without sin, etc).   For me, however, two things stood out.  One is that knowledge isn’t really all that great sometimes, especially when the nature of those using it does not change.  It is hard to escape this theme even as we watch the monk’s extraordinary labor of love in protecting the last few bits of human knowledge.  We know utterly that this small seed, no matter how carefully nurtured, has the potential to kill us all.  In and of itself knowledge is neither good nor bad; it is what you do with it that matters.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is not really optimistic about our chances.

The second thing is that Walter Miller, in his only novel, captured perfectly an era that soon no one will remember at all.  I was born the year after this book was published.  This is exactly what my generation thought would happen to our world.  Exactly.

“And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the Garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.

Score:  W00t!, profoundly

Ringworld:   It may be obvious that I am a huge fan of the science fiction novels of Iain Banks and more than one person has urged me to read Ringworld because of this.  Usually it is because of the obvious homage to the Ringworld itself that Banks has incorporated into his Culture novels but on reading the book I realized that Banks owes a far greater debt to Niven than I expected.

Louis Wu is turning 200 years old and he’s bored.  While porting himself around the planet in an effort to keep one step ahead of the sun and prolong his birthday an extra 24 hours he is intercepted by a Puppeteer, an enigmatic two-headed alien race not seen on Earth in many, many years.   The alien has a proposition for him:  join him and two others on a secret voyage of adventure.  The bait is an advanced form of FTL spaceship that will enable planetary societies to outrun an explosion at the galactic core.  The other bait is Teela Brown, a beautiful, not terribly bright, 20 year old near exact copy of one of Louis’ old lovers (who happens to have been her grandmother–kinky) who’s been invited on the trip for a singularly odd reason.  The final member of the crew and its muscle is  Speaker-to-Animals.  Speaker is a Kzin, which is basically a race of really large and aggressive cats that was formerly at war with humans.   The team’s first visit is to the Puppeteer home world where they discover their ultimate voyage is to a quite mysterious and quite large alien artifact orbiting a Sol-like star out in the middle of nowhere.

The Ringworld itself is one of those things that remind you why science fiction exists.  It is, in all respects, a Big Idea.  Unimaginably huge and opaque as to its origins, it turns majestically around its sun and offers no answers.   When Louis and the rest crash-land on its surface they are faced with a landscape both alien and familiar.   They are dwarfed by its dimensions and their quest to find a way to get their ship off the ring seems larger than it is because of the sheer scale of the undertaking.  (They calculate for instance that the nearest point on the rim to them is hundreds of thousands of miles away, farther than it is from the earth to the moon.)  In their brief time on Ringworld they actually find out very little about it, which rings (heh) true to this reader although I can understand why it frustrates so many others.  But let’s face it, the Ringworld is an entirely alien world.  They don’t  know who built it or when or why.  They don’t know what happened to the builders or their civilization.  Although they do eventually meet Prill, a stranded crew member from a Ringworld trading ship who can answer some of these questions, the net effect is only to open more mysteries.   Despite the leading last sentence, Niven apparently never intended to write a sequel, so I can only assume he meant to leave us with all these tantalizing unanswered questions.  (He eventually did write some sequels, 10 years later.)

In general I found it a good read.  It is fairly fast paced without being whiz-bang.  The plot line is reasonably believable and the surprise reveal at the end actually makes sense.  The narrative is somewhat hampered by weird throwbacks to pre-1960s sexism; Niven apparently found it easier to create complex alien characters (both male) than an actual human female who is anything more than a pretty bed mate.  He tries with Teela, usually by giving her some odd bits of smart conversation, but in the end Louis  “sells” her (for appearances’ sake) to an alien who is the spitting image of the muscle-bound, sword-wielding hero commonly found on the lurid covers of not-very-good fantasy novels.   When the team meets Prill she is sleeping with Louis within a few pages.  She is also rather opaque because Niven apparently felt that describing her as a “ship’s whore” was sufficient exposition of her character.  She exists primarily to give Nessus, Speaker, and Louis some bare-bones idea of what happened to the Ringworld and also to provide Louis with mind-blowing sex.   It appears that even in the distant future men fantasize that no matter how old they get young women will still find them hot.

So aside from the ginormous orbital itself, how is this like a Banks book? Well, for one thing there are the cute names.   The crew names their ship the “Lying Bastard” .  The promised FTL ship is the “Long Shot”.  There is a colony called “We Made it” and a large mountain called Mount Lookitthat.  There are the extravagant but temporary body mods, elongated lifespans, magical medical techniques, and aliens whose quirks are described in detail.  There’s the superfluous sex scenes.  There’s the tech, both small and massive, mostly unexplained but always described, just there.  There are ulterior motives slowly revealed and the odd twist at the end, not entirely unexpected but cleverly done.   More than these things there is the sense that this universe is real, it exists without you, its people and places and events are proceeding outside your limited field of vision.  You don’t get to know everything about it.  You are merely plunked down in a random spot and expected to learn as you go along.   And you do.  After all, what are worlds for but exploring?

All I can say is that Iain Banks must have read Ringworld at a very formative age.  Which is entirely a good thing.

Score:  Meh, but a good one and you should really read this.

~ by gun street girl on February 16, 2012.

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