Recent reads: Edmund Cooper, Transit

First edition cover

Edmund Cooper, Transit. Faber & Faber, 1964, 232 pp. ISBN 978-0-4418-2206-5

Rating: 8 out of 10

A while ago I was inserting some books that I had bought over the past year into my collection. That’s no trivial task. My books are arranged first by author, then by title. And there’s a lot of them. I don’t know exactly how many science fiction books I have, but the total length of my bookshelves exceeds 36 meters (about 120 feet). Anyway, at some point I stumbled upon an old pocket, a novel by Edmund Cooper, a British author who passed away prematurely in 1982, only 55 years old. It was a Dutch translation of Cooper’s 1964 novel Transit, with “Universeel Experiment” being the translated Dutch title. According to the cooper_e_universeelexperiment_1971_1_smallnotice on the first page, I had acquired it in 1978 and presumably I read it around that time. Most likely that was the second time that I read it, as I had by then devoured every SF book that our local library had to offer. In any case, I had only a faint recollection of the book: it involved a lot of beach and human relationships that included sex (I had a definite recollection of somebody saying “with our tail between our legs” and being corrected by his female companion: “with your tail between my legs, you’ll mean”). A serious adult relationship including sex was, of course, rather unusual for a science fiction novel of that time.

I also remembered that the story had included something like a competition between Terrans and an alien species, organized by an ancient species overseeing the galaxy, but didn’t really remember any particulars. So I decided to read this book again, almost 40 years after I had bought it (and after having dragged it all over the world through multiple moves, within and between different countries, two of these moves being transatlantic…) At just a little bit over 200 pages (this was long before the time where SF authors would need multiple tomes of 500 pages minimum to get their message across), it didn’t take me long to work my way through it and, I have to say, I was not disappointed.

Sure, there are places where the book shows its age. All four human characters, for example, smoke. And the division of roles is classic: the two men hunt and provide food while the women take care of the camp (and get pregnant). They listen to music using vinyl discs. Those are details, however. Yes, the division of tasks is traditional, but apart from that, the women are smart and full members of the team, something that cannot be said of most SF of that time. In fact, if one would remove those few anachronistic things, the book could have been written just recently. Of course, part of that is because there is hardly any science or technology in the book and what there is, is so advanced that Cooper doesn’t even try to explain things that look like magic (Arthur C. Clarke‘s famous third law).

The story is familiar for a modern reader, because its theme has been explored by several writers (and I even vaguely recall a Star Trek episode with a similar plot, but I may be wrong about that), but this may have been one of the first: a group of Terrans is placed in an unfamiliar environment, in this case a tropical island on a planet in a different solar system, with only minimal resources and tools. On the same island, a group of 4 aliens is dropped at the same time, with a similar lack of resources. Conflict ensues and at the end of the book, it turns out that the winner not only gets to colonize this particular planet, but will come to dominate the whole of our quadrant of the Galaxy.

The story line is rather simple. As I said above, SF novels in those days were not supposed to be too long, so there was no room for secondary characters or secondary story lines. Neither is there any discussion about what drives the other group of aliens, who seem to derive a sadistic pleasure from the suffering of animals or even of the clearly intelligent Terrans. But the story of the four Terrans is interesting enough and the characters are sympathetic, even though only the main character (Richard Avery, a name later used by Cooper as a pseudonym) is fleshed out in more detail. As the story is told through Avery’s eyes, that is to be expected though. Cooper succeeds in bringing Avery to live and, when one of the women miscarries and he has to bury the unborn baby, Cooper’s rendition is touching and almost made me choke up.

In fact, the only major quibble I have with this book is that the other aliens on the island, nicknamed the “Golden Ones”, are completely human-like, despite the fact that they come from a different planet. Of course, it is unlikely in the extreme that aliens evolved  in a different solar system would even remotely look like us. However, the story would be very different if the Golden Ones had looked like, say, an octopus, so I am willing to overlook this.

In all, this book provided several agreeable hours of diversion. After more than 50 years, it is still very enjoyable for a modern reader. And I think I should also mention the excellent translation by the noted science fiction author and editor, Carl Lans, even if he sometimes uses a Dutch that sounds a bit archaic to a 21st century ear.

Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!

Recent Reads: David Weber et al., A Call to Arms

call to arms

 

David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope, A Call to Arms. Baen Books, 2015, 477 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8156-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

David Weber is not the guy you go to for deep ideas and thoughts. Weber writes space opera and he does that exceedingly well. This book is another good example of his talents, even though this time he has been assisted by two co-authors. A Call to Arms is the second volume in the Manticore Ascendant series set in his “Honorverse“. This series tells the story of the early Star Kingdom of Manticore and its rise to prominence among the nations of the known galaxy. As with other books in the series produced by Weber, the strongest part of his stories is his description of politics and how decisions are being made.

Although his characters are certainly not interchangeable and individually clearly recognizable personalities, characterization is not always his strongest point. For example, much is made of the fact that the protagonist of this series, Travis Long, yearns for rules and a structured environment. Despite this, Travis seems to be functioning best when things are at their most chaotic and after a while the repeated references to this character trait becomes a bit tiresome. Nevertheless, Weber generally succeeds in making his characters believable, even the “bad guys”, something that many writers usually have the most problems with.

There’s one notable exception to this. This book describes a period in the development of the Star Kingdom where some local politicians try to defund the Navy as much as possible to further their own political goals. Of course, they are shown to be at the wrong side of history when the Kingdom is attacked by mercenaries and only barely escapes being conquered, thanks to the heroic sacrifices of the severely underpowered Navy. When the dust settles down, it turns out that these politicians stick to their positions and continue to work to deny the Navy the funds it needs. Here, Weber fails to make this believable. Faced with the clear-cut evidence that there are dangers to which the Kingdom is exposed and against which it needs to defend itself, one would expect even the most hard-headed idiot to change his position. Instead, Weber’s characters maintain their obviously wrong stance and he fails to make it clear to his readers why on Earth (or, rather, on Manticore) these otherwise not stupid people would do this.

One thing I have come to appreciate more and more was that the names of characters in this series are “normal”. What I mean with this is that we don’t have to deal with the unpronounceable (and almost impossible to remember) names used in his Safehold series or the gimmicky names that he used in his early Honorverse novels (remember the cheesy “Robb S. Pierre”?)

A Call to Arms provides good reading, an engaging story described in a believable way. If you’re allergic to politics, you’d do better to avoid this book, and most of Weber’s other work, too. Weber does not provide high literature, but then, he does not pretend to nor (as far as I can tell) does he even aim to do so. Still, I always look forward to a new book of his, certain that it will provide a number of hours of enjoyable reading and diversion. If I have one quibble with Weber, it is perhaps that lately his story lines seem to slow down more and more, with each new book in his different series advancing the greater story only incrementally.

Recent Reads: Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise

 

Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise. Tor Book, 2013, 424 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6917-8

Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of books, using some quite original ideas as the basis for his stories. I have not read all of his work, but enjoyed Spin and its sequels, Axis and Vortex. Like in the Spin series, this story is based on rather enigmatic aliens interfering with humankind. Unlike that series, this book is not set in the future, but in the present of an alternate history. In this alternate history, the last threat of a big war was the Great War, known to us as the First World War. It was nipped in the bud and never became the deadly meat-grinder that it was in our timeline. In consequence, Germany never was beaten and the Russian Revolution did not take place. That the war did not break out and instead became the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace is thanks to an alien “entity” living in near-Earth orbit. This alien has inexorably nudged human history towards less violence and, after the “Great Armistice of 1914”, the League of Nations has become an important force of peace, not the toothless organization that it has been in our timeline.

Without going into too much detail of the plot, the main issue that the novel addresses is the price of freedom. Is a peaceful world without major wars something for which it is worth to give up our freedom? What the main characters do not know, of course, is how the world would have developed without alien intervention, something we, the readers, do know, of course. And then the price humankind pays for this peaceful world becomes a mixed bag of good and bad things. Technology has developed much slower than in our world. No nuclear energy, for example. But also, no nuclear weapons, no MAD. No rockets either: the alien does not want us to intrude upon its domain or even discover its existence.

Of course, as a science fiction fan, the latter restriction weighs heavily. However, the moon landings are now almost 50 years ago and we have not advanced much since then. Were those few trips to the moon really worth the untold millions of people killed in World War II (not to speak of all those other 20th century wars)?

It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, the novel’s protagonists choose freedom and the destruction of the alien entity. Much more interesting is the question whether we, knowing how murderous the 20th century became, would have made the same choice…

Interesting as the story is, near the end it becomes rather predictable. In addition, I found the characters to be rather bland, without much development. Thomas, the younger brother of one of the main characters, for example, just remains one-dimensional and clearly was only added to the plot for one surprise at the end (which, by the time I got to that point, I had already guessed anyway). The other characters are fleshed out more, but never to the point that I actually felt like understanding them and the choices they make.

In summary, I think this book is clearly worth reading. The underlying ideas are intriguing and reasonably well worked out. The characters could have been developed better and the plot is in places a bit predictable. All in all, I found this book entertaining and intriguing and rate it 7 points out of 10.

What happens on Tschai…

I recently wrote about Close to Critical, a 1950s novel that I first read in the late 1960s. Some time after that I read City of the Chash and its sequel, Servants of the Wankh  (in Dutch, it wasn’t until the late 80s that I started reading mainly in English), the first two volumes in the Planet of Adventure series. It took me some time to convince myself to read the books: the blurb on the first one said that it was “brilliant and hallucinating” (‘briljant en waanzinnig’) and that somehow put me off as it sounded like some experimental prose that I had tried (and failed) to read. However, I was a voracious reader (during school vacations 2 or sometimes even 3 books per day) and ever since I had read Robert Heinlein‘s Orphans of the Sky while at an astronomy camp in the summer of 1968, I did not read anything but science fiction. So at some point, I had actually read all science fiction books that our local library offered and found myself forced, despite the off-putting “maniacal” and the fact that I had never heard of the author (Jack Vance, 1916-2013), to give these books a try anyway. That was a fateful decision, leading to a lot of joy (reading many more wonderful Vance novels and stories) and a lot of anguish (impatiently waiting for the next volumes in the tetralogy to appear, which took more than a year – something close to eternity when you’re 16 years old…).

Where Hal Clement had shown me the wonderful and amazing worlds that science fiction writers can imagine, Jack Vance blew me away with the strange and alien cultures that his mind produced. Some of his most alien cultures were actually human… In fact, as I learned later, the Planet of Adventure series is a somewhat atypical example of Vance’s work, which most often describes human worlds and cultures and much less often includes alien species. Well, Tschai, the world on which these novels are situated, contains not just one, but at least four separate and very different alien species: the Chash (which come in three very distinct varieties: the decadent Old Chash, the more dynamic Blue Chash, and the barbaric Green Chash), the Wankh (in later editions called “Wannek”), the Dirdir, and the indigenous Pnume. There’s a fifth alien species, the Phung, but it remains unclear whether this is really a separate species or an insane variant of the Pnume. When an explorer from Earth, Adam Reith, crashes on Tschai, he finds to his bewilderment that it is also inhabited by humans, in an even more bewildering diversity of peoples, races, tribes, and varieties. These humans are the descendants of Neanderthals and other humans taken from Earth by some of these aliens in prehistoric times. Each one of the four alien species has a specialized variety of humans to serve them (with the interesting exception of the Wankhmen) and that have evolved to resemble them physically (the Dirdirmen, for example) or mentally (the Pnumekin). The other peoples of Tschai are descendants of members of these client races that for some reason or another were expelled from their communities.

Over the years and decades, I re-read these novels several times. So much so, that I actually could point out on a map of Tschai the different places visited by Reith in sequence. I don’t recall when I read my old Dutch copy of the tetralogy for the last, umpteenth, time, but recently I decided that I wanted to read the novels yet again, but this time in their original English. I wasn’t disappointed. Within a week of the arrival of my new copy, I had finished it (it was a busy week, so I could not read as much as I wanted…). The books, I am happy to report, have withstood the ravages of time quite well and are still a fascinating read.

The narrative follows Reith, who tries to obtain a spaceship to return to Earth to warn humanity for the threat that these alien species represent. His quest takes him all over Tschai, which provided Vance with the canvas on which to paint dozens of different human cultures, each with its own peculiar habits and strange religious beliefs. Vance is not a writer who waxes philosophical about how such customs, rituals, and religions emerge or how a culture gets established. However, when reading a book like Planet of Adventure, I really cannot imagine that someone would only read this as an adventure novel and nothing more. One simply is forced to wonder how all this came about. In some cases, this is obvious. The Dirdirmen, for example, believe that they originate from a Primeval Egg, which lay partly in the sun, partly in the shade on the Dirdir homeworld. When it hatched, the Dirdir emerged from the sunny side and the Dirdirmen from the shaded side. As one of Reith’s travel companions, the Dirdirman Ankhe at afram Anacho says: “They are Sun, we are Shade… The Dirdir are the highest form of cosmic live; Dirdirmen can only emulate and this we do, with pride”. To approach this ideal Dirdir form as much as possible, the Dirdirmen have practiced selective breeding for many millennia, supplemented with surgery and the use of artificial body parts. The Dirdir, in turn, mostly seem to barely acknowledge the existence of the Dirdirmen. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the origin of this creation story must be the Dirdir themselves, who have made it up to keep the Dirdirmen in their place as useful servants.

The books are filled to the brim with inventive concepts and ideas. For example, on Tschai money does grow, albeit subterranean, not on trees. One might expect that this would make it easy to become rich. Not so. Money remains scarce, because it only grows in one particular region and the Dirdir use this as their hunting ground, where they return to their pre-civilized feral state and hunt the humans that search for money, roasting and eating their prey. Fascinating and puzzling are the decadent Yao, where individuals have a plethora of personal names, each to be used only in precisely defined circumstances that are almost impossible to grasp for outsiders. Some rituals look silly to us, like the sect that considers the act of ingesting nourishment to be something intrinsically personal, not to be performed in public, much like we think about sex. My favorites in the book are the mysterious Pnume, with a recorded history of millions of years. Although the fourth volume of the series plays almost exclusively in their underground realm (somehow, “subterranean” seems out of place and “subtschaian” is awkward), they remain at the end only slightly less mysterious than before.

When reading these descriptions of wonderful, mysterious, silly rituals, cultures, and religions, I find it impossible not to reflect on how real-world religions, rituals, and cultures came about and wonder whether some of our beliefs and habits have perhaps a similar, almost trivial, origin, where someone or some group made up something to further some selfish goal. That, of course, is what good science fiction does: it makes you think.

In short, these books have remained as fascinating as when I read them for the first time, almost half a century ago. Of course, knowing these books so well, by now the surprise is gone for me, although the sense of wonder remains. So I envy you, if you don’t know Tschai yet, because there is no equivalent to the sensation of discovery that you get when you read these books for the first time.