Sunday, 22 May 2011

Four Sci-Fi Classics I'll Never Forget

Since I’d read SF off and on since primary school, I was more than a little surprised/excited when I came across the list of books chosen for Orion’s SF Masterworks series several years back. You see, I hadn’t read most of them—hadn’t even heard of some. And being such a painfully slow reader, I knew I had to get cracking if I wanted to improve as a SF writer.

My first title from this new line was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a tense, wonderfully intimate post-apocalyptic thriller. But I’d already read his earlier work, The Shrinking Man, and knew how great Matheson was. A couple of Wells novels later—quality, but again, I knew what to expect from ol’ H.G.—I decided it was time to “discover” an author unfamiliar to me.

1. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Bester I’d heard of by reputation—a titanic reputation—and of his two most revered works, I chose this one because I loved the title. It smacks of the grandiosity and mystery Star Trek purports to pursue but rarely does: exploring the unknown regions of the universe, etc. Well, as it turns out, neither does The Stars My Destination. Bester’s anti-hero, Gully Foyle begins the story marooned in the wreckage of his spaceship. After subsisting for weeks on his own, he sees another ship approach. But rather than stop to help, the vessel speeds away and leaves him for dead. From that moment on, Gully is a man driven by revenge—an insane, unquenchable revenge that transforms him from an illiterate janitor to a sophisticated criminal and phenomenal “jaunter”.

Jaunting is the most ingenious use of teleportation I’ve ever come across. It’s a part of human evolution in Bester’s future. Some can do it and some can’t, but the idea of mass teleportation, entire populations migrating across the world by the power of thought, frankly blows my mind. Gully’s such a single-minded guy, his quest is so dangerous and nuts, you can’t help but root for him. I love the unpredictable story. It follows through on all its early promise and keeps going. By the end, I was ready for anything. Bester scored a knockout.

2. Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

The set-up of this one is incredibly simple. A mysterious object of vast proportions is found drifting through our solar system, and only one ship has time to rendezvous before the object reaches perihelion. It turns out to be a massive, artificial cylinder, and better still…it’s hollow. The international investigating crew decides to venture inside…and one of my new favourite SF adventures begins.

I’d started another of Clarke’s books a few years before and found it too dry. But Rama fascinated me from start to finish. There’s an addictive anticipation from chapter to chapter, and you’re floating, climbing, even cycling alongside the crew every inch of the way. Nothing compares to a truly alien mystery, and the secrets of Rama amount to a very special SF read indeed. I’ll be revisiting this one often.

3. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Our very own Shawn Kupfer’s recent novel 47 Echo reminded me that I hadn’t read any Military SF in a while, and that it was about time I gave The Forever War a chance. It had languished on my shelf for a couple of years, and I don’t know what I was expecting. An author friend of mine cited it as one of the three best SF books ever written.

It’s certainly up there, I have to say. It’s no Starship Troopers clone; instead, Haldeman really nails the insulation/isolation of a soldier’s tour of duty across light-years of space. Over the course of the story, the time dilation he experiences from constantly travelling at near the speed of light means that while he’s aged only several years, Earth has advanced many thousands of years. He returns to civilization periodically, but things have changed beyond all recognition. He and Marygay, his fellow trooper and the love his life, develop a lasting bond I found extremely moving.

Haldeman’s unfussy prose works so well because there’s so much going on between the words. His world-building is rich and the protagonist, Private Mandella, displays deep humanity underneath what Audie Murphy referred to as “a weary indifference” to war. This is a great book.

4. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Be warned, this one’s a bit of an oddity. It’s a dense, first person account of an extraordinary out-of-body odyssey that spans the entire life of the cosmos and beyond. We meet myriad worlds, alien life-forms ranging from crustaceans to conscious galaxies, and even the Star Maker himself, the great Creator. I don’t know what Mr Stapledon was smogged on when he wrote this but I’ve never seen this many SF ideas packed into one novel. He penned it in 1937, which is kind of staggering because it means he probably coined more SF concepts in Star Maker than anyone else has in a full career.

It’s tough going in places due to the relentless bombardment of ideas without a proper narrative. The author also drifts outside SF throughout; he’s spiritually/philosophically inclined. But he’s also a poet, and I really lapped up the eloquence of his prose. My imagination reeled for days after finishing it. As trailblazing SF, it’s a one of a kind.

SF Book Review: Ender's Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game for the first time last night. I’d caught snippets of controversy over the years, heard bits and pieces about the plot, and I even recall one of my favourite film directors, Wolfgang Petersen, was attached to make it as a Hollywood blockbuster at one point (um, good luck to anyone who tries!). I’ve had such good luck with my run of SF classics recently, I thought I’d give this immensely popular novel a try.

Six-year-old child prodigy Ender Wiggin is the youngest of three siblings with unlimited potential. They’ve all been monitored by the military authorities, and Colonel Graff, charged with selecting a child to be groomed for eventual leadership in a pending war against the alien “buggers”, picks Ender. His brother Peter is cruel and heartless, while his sister Valentine is too nice to ever hurt anyone. Ender, meanwhile, possesses the best attributes of both, from a military point of view. He is compassionate enough to make friends and inspire loyalty, but he also has a single-minded survival instinct that is cold and calculating. Graff reckons that with sufficient training, he can coax Ender into becoming a military tactician to rival Alexander the Great or Napoleon.

Did I mention Ender is only six?

Throughout his time in Command School, a top secret orbital station, the best and the worst of Ender are brought out—his will to succeed, to become master of the battleroom, sees him progress up the ranks with astonishing speed. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is deeply haunted by memories of his cruel brother and the sister he loved. Graff is ever present behind the scenes, pulling the strings, manipulating the young genius into becoming the best he can be. The stunning third act is full of twists and turns as Ender must struggle to realize his true, frightening potential.

Wow, talk about a provocative novel! I’ve seen it listed as Young Adult, but there’s no end to the moral, ethical, political, social, and futuristic themes raked up here. Card doesn’t dwell on any of them, doesn’t preach; he tells his story the simplest way he can and lets the reader do most of the heavy lifting—if they want it. Because it also works as an exciting science fiction tale, a coming-of-age story, with a memorable climax.

Ender might be very young but he thinks and behaves with an ever-increasing maturity almost immediately. There’s nothing condescending here. He’s also prone to nightmares, and is shaped not just by Graff and the endless battleroom games, but by those around him. He has to contend with bullies, rivals, abusive teachers, personal demons: all of us have something in common with Ender Wiggin. Card’s triumph here is the complexity he gives these boys and girls struggling to become men and women before their time. At their age, it might all be about winning games and points, but they’re constantly aware there’ll be a time when those games and points will end lives. We feel that responsibility weighing Ender down, and his will to overcome it becomes ours, vicariously. We don’t want these children to ever graduate from the battleroom. But if they must, let it be under the leadership of someone with compassion and not just a killer instinct. Humanity must graduate intact.

Everyone needs a Valentine to temper their Peter.

I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed Ender’s Game. It’s a one-of-a-kind children’s SF war story that isn’t really for children at all. I’m telling everyone I know to read it (if they haven’t already), and I can’t wait to see what the sequels are like.

That makes six GREAT sci-fi novels in a row for me now. The previous one was Frank Herbert’s Dune; next up is Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. SF has always been my favourite genre, but I had no idea there were so many masterpieces out there, waiting to be discovered.

This is Robert, signing off for now.