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Ten Written Works That Changed My Life

As an author and academic, the written word has had a tremendous impact on my life. I spend most of my time, both at work and at home, dealing with the written word in its various forms, whether through writing, editing, or reading, in fiction and non-fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that certain specific works I have read – whether they be book series, novels, nonfiction books, essays, or short stories – have resonated with me or otherwise drastically affected either how I saw the world, how I interacted with it, or how I lived my life. In keeping with the current trend of making lists, I wanted to then offer you all a list of the top ten written works that have changed my life:

1). The Grey King by Susan Cooper
When I was but a wee lad, my mother read this book to my brothers and me. Though it is the fourth book in Cooper’s Dark is Rising quintet, it was by far her favorite of the series, and at the time one of her favorite books. This book changed my life simply because it is the first book I have a clear memory of reading (or hearing), and it was got me hooked on reading non-picture books. I am certain I read other books when I was younger, and I even remember many of them. However, it is upon having this book read to me by my mother that I got hooked on the written word, and understood how powerful books can be when combined with your imagination. Plus, it’s a great book and part of a great series (I went on to read all five books), and I actually made friends by introducing them to the themes of this work!

2). The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
I read The Lord of the Rings at a very young age, and it remains the first book I actually read on my own (I have no idea why my parents let me do this). It also introduced me to high fantasy, and opened my eyes to the power that world-building can have. I think I can trace my own obsession with world-building as a writer (and reader) back to the influence of The Lord of the Rings. While I have mixed feelings about the writing and characters (and plot), the world of the The Lord of the Rings was the first immersive world I experienced other than this one.

3). The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
Rest in Peace, Brian Jacques. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was small, at a book signing. I was too shy to speak to him, but all I remember was a laugh, him commenting on what a nice boy I was, and a signature in The Legend of Luke. I still have that book, which remains one of my most valued possessions because it showed me that authors are people. It was the first experience I had meeting a famous author, and it made me realize that there a person behind the words, and worlds, that I was reading about. Redwall as a book series was also the first extensive series I ever read, and the rodent main characters – and my love for them – were what inspired my mother to make me try the Skaven race in the tabeltop game Warhammer, which had an enormous impact on my lifecourse, as it turned me into a gamer and roleplayer. Thus, I really think I can trace back my earliest desires to write back to Redwall and its introducing me to the world of gaming, as well as of showing me that authors are real.

4). The Dune Series by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson
Dune was the first science fiction novel I ever read, and I still consider it one of the best, if not the best, novel ever written. It turned me onto the dark path of science fiction, from which I never recovered. I did not want to read this book at first, as I thought it looked boring and stupid, but both of my parents forced me to read it. After a chapter, I was hooked. By the end of the novel, I wanted more, and I began reading the rest of the series, including the prequels and sequels (well, most of them, anyway). Dune sparked my first interest in questions about humanity, and not only what it means to be human, but what it means to have a human society. Perhaps here I found my earliest interest in the social sciences, my other passion.

5). The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons
If Dune was my first science fiction novel and series and introduced me to the genre, Hyperion was what kept me interested. To my young mind, Hyperion was everything Dune was, and better, because it was shorter and (at the time) it seemed to me to have such a great sense of scale. I read Hyperion and its sequels before finishing the Dune books, and so I was able to achieve a sense of completeness in it before I ever got that same sense from DuneHyperion was also a beautiful story, in a way that Dune isn’t (Dune is brilliant, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful), and made me rethink the ways in which I saw the world. It instilled in me a sense of wonder and awe (which my cynicism eventually shattered), and also showed me what happens when power is used to destroy mankind’s potential futures. It was Hyperion and its sequels that made me think about what it meant to be human on an individual scale, and what it meant to truly live life, rather than just experiencing it. The Hyperion Cantos remains one of my favorite book series, on par with Dune in many respects, and it introduced an element of humanism into my own thoughts – and eventually, my writing.

6). The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Well, this item certainly changes the tone of the list. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, or The Communist Manifesto, is the first piece of non-textbook scholarly work I remember reading (in freshman year of high school), and it has stuck with me. I have read it countless times now in my work as a sociologist, and while other examples of Marx’s work may illustrate the Manifesto‘s ideas better (The German Ideology and Capital come to mind), the Manifesto remains the best concise work of what Marxism is. While I don’t agree with everything Marx said, a lot of what he did say rang true with me, and it was after reading The Communist Manifesto that I began not only to see better my own role in society, and my class’ role in history, but that I also began to think, for the first time sociologically. As I am now pursuing a PhD in Sociology, the importance of this work should be rather self-evident.

7). Democracy for the Few by Michael Parenti
This was the textbook for my introductory sociology course at university. While I credit my interest in sociology to a certain amazing and influential high school teacher, it was this sociology course on “social problems” and this textbook that cemented my interest in sociology, and led me down the path I am now. This book is what kept me in sociology after Marx’s Manifesto and my high school teacher introduced me to it. Written by a journalist, this book was the first to open my eyes to all of the problems in contemporary American society, and what drove me to want to try and alleviate some of those problems (hubris, I know), and what kindled my interest in sociology as a discipline and a way of looking at the world. I still have this textbook on my bookshelf, and I maintain that, while maybe a bit dated, it is one of the best introductions to what the social sciences can offer society at larger ever written.

8). “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft
While by no means the first work of horror I ever read (Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” win that prize), H. P. Lovecraft’s famous short story has been by far the most influential piece of horror in my own life. One large part of this is because this was the first story by H. P. Lovecraft I ever read, and another part of it is that in it I found an expression of my own growing cynicism, first implanted in me by reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The cosmic standpoint offered in this short story – and in most of Lovecraft’s work – actually made me feel better about my own nihilistic views (at the time), which had come to replace some of the humanist values instilled in me by Simmons’ Hyperion. In particular, the opening passage of the short story still resonates me, and it is sometimes a viewpoint that I still espouse:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism.

Aside from this, H. P. Lovecraft has had a tremendous impact on the themes in my own writing, perhaps more so than any other author.

9). There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

Another work of nonfiction, this book was written by a journalist who followed a family living in the Chago projects for several years, and coupled this work with interviews about the family’s past and, eventually, with work he did revisiting the family many years later. This book is a visceral account of black poverty in modern America, and is hugely eye-opening for a middle-class white American like myself. Other books about race and class could have been hear as well: Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow spring to mind, but both of those, while sound sociological analyses and eye-opening in their own right, lack the imagery and visceralness of There Are No Children Here. This book really made me think about race, class, violence, and poverty in a way I had never thought about before. [Interestingly, I have yet to find an account of gender inequities that had a similar impact on my life].

10). 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
This is by far the most recently read book on this list; in fact, I only read it a few months ago. Despite this, 2001: A Space Odyssey has significantly changed my understanding of the larger universe in which we live. While previously, Lovecraftian themes of insignificance and horrible truths dominated my thoughts, Clarke approached the problem of significance in an entirely different way. Like Lovecraft, he believed that mankind was ultimately insignificant in the cosmos, and 2001 clearly demonstrates this. However, for him, this insignificance is a beautiful thing, not a horrifying one, and somehow he manages to inject a human element into an enormous universe. The universe isn’t horrifying; it’s beautiful. The passage in which Clarke describes the ship’s passage over Jupiter in 2001 is one of the nest descriptive passages I’ve ever read, and simultaneously puts humanity in their cosmic place while urging them to step beyond it. 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the humanism I took from Hyperion with Lovecraft’s cosmic despair and allowed them to both live side by side in me, and gave me a burst of optimism to temper my pessimism.

So there you have it; ten written works that changed my life! Feel free to comment with yours, or of course, to try and read some of the ones I listed above!

And some honorable mentions:

The Uplift Saga by David Brin
American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton
Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
“Bureaucracy” by Max Weber
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Personal, Philosophical Musings, Readings

 

American Gods

In between getting ready to head back to another semester of graduate studies and working on The Eldritch Wastes, I’ve managed to get a little bit of reading for pleasure done! My latest literary conquest has been Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for a while now. I’ve been a long-time follower of Neil Gaiman online, including on Twitter and Facebook, and I enjoy reading his writing tips and journal, but other than his brilliant I, Cthulhu, until recently I had not read any of his fiction work. I was first introduced to Mr. Gaiman as a conspirator involved in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (their collaborations, I regret to say, I have not read either), and ever since learning of this I have intended to read Gaiman’s solo work (aside from his work in the comics arena). Alas, until now, I have not gotten around to it.

So, when at the library a few weeks back, I picked up American Gods, as it seems to be Gaiman’s most well-known novel. My father warned me against reading it, but I did anyway, because I do things like that. I’m still trying to decide if I’m glad I did.

Don’t get me wrong; American Gods was (and still is) a beautifully written book. What this comes down to is a question of personal preference. While the novel was very well-crafted, it didn’t do much for me as a reader.

The basic idea is that an ex-convict named Shadow (an odd name, especially because you aren’t given another name for him) is released from prison only to find that everything (and everyone) from his former life are gone or dead. He quickly gets a job offer from a “Mr. Wednesday” that amounts to being his assistant while he goes around the US rallying the old gods immigrants brought to the country to fight against the new gods of media, internet, and the like. Scattered among this “main” storyline were lots of little vignettes illustrating the passages of various gods across the Atlantic (or Pacific). These vignettes were my favorite part of the book, but also distracted somewhat from the main storyline; I can see that they were meant to give more context and weight to what was going on, but for me they didn’t work; they functioned more like independent short stories to me.

The novel’s cast, aside from Shadow and his (dead) wife, consist mostly of gods and the inhabitants of a small wintry town Shadow lives in between trips with Mr. Wednesday. The town Gaiman created had a lot of character, and I feel like a whole other novel could have been written just about what was going on there, and it would have been good. Alas, we don’t get that, and instead what the book does is present us with a travelogue of sorts across the United States. All of the locations (and associated gods) were so briefly explored, however, that I left wanting to more and was never satisfied. As a result of the semi-disconnected nature of the main plot and the vignettes, I never grew attached to the characters and the novel seemed unfocused.

My other major quibble with the novel was the metaphysics behind the existence of the gods. world-building is always the most important thing to me, and never knowing what was going on – but feeling like I should know what was going on – bothered me throughout reading the novel. Something also just didn’t click about how the gods worked; Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather tackled the god who is sustained on belief model better than Gaiman did, I think.

That all being said, the writing was brilliant, and the characters, though most appear only briefly, were golden and accurately reflected the myths surrounding the gods. More than one joke or well-placed one-liner made me giggle, and I was drawn into the story, despite my reservations, by the writing itself. However, the writing was very surreal, and fantasy and reality blended together and made it hard to separate which was which – which was doubtless Mr. Gaiman’s intention – and while it annoyed me a little bit, Neil Gaiman executed it very well.

All in all, it was mostly a fun read for the brilliant and fluid writing, but the world-building and fragmented plot bothered me enough to give it my full endorsement. Still, if you want an interesting fantasy travelogue of United States culture, this book might be worth a read, and by no means has the novel turned me off of Gaiman’s other work.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2014 in Readings

 

Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite authors; his Zones of Thought books are brilliant (especially his depiction of the Tines and the spiders of the world circling the OnOff star, both in terms of individuals and societies) and his Realtime/Bobble series is some of the best science fiction ever written. Thus, it was with high expectations that I turned to his 2006 novel Rainbows End, set in an alternate version of his short story “Fast Times at Fairmont High.” The short story and the novel have many similarities, including the same characters (Juan Orozco and the Gu family, though the names of the father and mother changed in the novel) and a similar fascination with what reality really is and the social effects of an internet carried to its extreme. While the short story is interesting, it really pales in comparison to the novel, which expands upon everything “Fast Times at Fairmont High” had to offer.

Rainbows End centers around the Gu family; in particular, world-renowned poet Robert Gu, who after having barely survived Alzheimer’s, is now learning how to live in a world where the real and the virtual are blended together. Almost everyone uses special clothes and contacts to be constantly wired into a global internet made possibly by a series of localizing nodes, and they can overlay various realities over what really exists. Essentially, everyone’s reality can be tailored to their own preferences, and people can work together to create larger “belief circles,” which are large virtual realities often based around works of fiction.

This whole idea of everyone having their own reality was the most fascinating part of Rainbows End, but alas it was not fully explored. Instead, Vinge set this as merely a backdrop for a more personal story about an old man trying to find his place in the world, a young woman trying to keep her grandfather out of trouble, a young boy trying to pass his classes, a conspirator trying to make the world a better place by less-than-savory means, and a rabbit intelligence whose power is only hinted at. This plot is well-done for the most part, though a bit complex and at times confusing, but to served to distract from a more thorough examination of a society firmly embedded in multiple clashing virtual realities. These clashes are hinted at, but never realized, as the book gets a little bit lost in its personal stories and plot. I think, in the end, it suffered from trying to do much.

Still, the book was very well-written, very engaging, and while a bit confusing, really made me think. I wish some aspects of it had been explored more thoroughly, and I hope that his probably sequel will do exactly that. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but it is still well worth a read.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Readings

 

The End of Eternity

Ending my recent spate of Asimov reading comes one of his earlier works, 1955′s The End of Eternity. This book was published shortly after the stories that made up the Foundation trilogy. Indeed, I think the same ideas driving Foundation were still very much in Asimov’s mind as he wrote this book, as it also deals with the social sciences – in this case, just called sociology and psychology and not psychohistory – influencing human development. Unlike Foundation‘s psychohistory, though, the sociology and psychology Asimov discusses in this work can predict individual behavior.

The premise of the End of Eternity is simple and very interesting: there exists a dimension outside of space and time called “Eternity” alongside our universe, and humans are taken from the real universe to live in this universe, where they work to help mankind by changing events across all of history to cause the least possible harm. In essence, it deals with time-travel and social engineering on both large and small scales. The main character – who, like most Asimov characters, is rather forgettable – is an Eternal who falls in love with a timebound woman, and risks the existence of all Eternity to be with her. While this romance is painful at times, it serves as a useful plot device to explore all of the problems inherent in a group of outsiders guiding human history to cause the least possible harm. Ultimately, the novel revolves around two questions: why the Eternals can’t access a series of centuries in the far future, after which mankind is extinct, and why there is no significant space travel (and no Foundation-esque Galactic Empire). Both questions turn out to be intimately related, and Asimov’s exploration of them really make this book stand out as well worth-reading. I highly recommend it, and for the sake of not spoiling anything, I will stop here.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Readings

 

Structure, Agency, and Foundation

I think Isaac Asimov secretly wished he had been a social scientist. Though he was a respected biochemist, his works, particularly the Foundation trilogy, privilege social scientists. At one point, Asimov even notes that the physical sciences are more lauded because their results are immediately beneficial, yet ultimately superficial, while the work of the social sciences have little immediate benefit, but in the long run yield far greater results. Asimov’s fascination with the social sciences led him to fuse his physical science training with his idea of social science (particularly sociology), to create the fictional science of psychohistory: the reduction of the collective actions of vast numbers of people into equations, enabling a skilled practitioner to predict future human behavior using advanced statistical techniques. This science is the basis of Asimov’s lauded Foundation trilogy, and to some extent the prequels and sequels (the series was awarded the “best all-time series” Hugo in 1966). This post is only concerned with the first five Foundation books, and excludes the prequels. Thus, I will only discuss FoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

The premise of the Foundation series is simple enough: in a future so distant that mankind has colonized the entire galaxy and Earth is a mere myth, psychohistorian Hari Seldon perfects the art of psychohistory on the Galactic Imperial capital Trantor. During the process, he discovers that the Galactic Empire is in decline, and predicts that 30,000 years of barbarism will follow its collapse. However, his psychohistory allows him to see a way to reduce this period to a mere millennium by establishing two “foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve human knowledge and provide the seeds for a new Galactic Empire even greater than before. The original trilogy deals with the people of the First Foundation, a great collection of physical scientists, who follow the “Seldon Plan” and work towards a new Galactic Empire.

Over the course of these first three books (the later two I will discuss later), Asimov comes in on a very old argument within sociology: which is more important in thinking about human society, social structures or human agency? Psychohistory, the physical science of society, is the pinnacle of the structuralist argument, though it leaves room for agency. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict history for the next thousand years, and grounds his predictions on two assumptions (plus an unspoken third assumption key to Foundation and Earth): that people to not consciously know of psychohistorical predictions, and that there are sufficiently large numbers of people to make the predictions from. In Seldon’s model, the individual cannot change history, and social forces will always triumph. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, who can more or less rule their own life. It is only large-scale, macrosocial events that are subject to psychohistorical principles.

Of course, the series would be relatively boring if everything went according to Hari Seldon’s plan. In the second book, an individual gains the power to change history, thus representing the triumph of agency over structure, and destroying the Seldon plan. This triumph was only made possible by a “mutation” that, in a way, made this individual no longer human by giving him the power to influence the minds of others, and thus fell outside of Seldon’s psychohistory. Thus, for the first time, the individual was not a pawn of social forces. As such, in the original trilogy, the struggle between structure, as represented by the Seldon Plan, and agency, as represented by those resisting the Seldon plan (successfully only in the case of the mutant).

In the end, Asimov explores the structuralist argument more, and when agency does come up, it is treated as an aberration that can (and maybe even should) be corrected. As such, I think Asimov tends to side with the structuralist argument more than the agency argument. That said, I’m not sure his idea of structure is completely devoid of agency. During periods of “crisis” in the Seldon Plan (which are part of the plan and only apparent crises to the First Foundation’s existence, which are resolved by the social forces already set in motion), the First Foundation is supposed to do very little and let social inertia solve the crisis for them, thus rendering individual action useless. Yet, despite his characters saying this, individual agency seems to matter; the first great Mayor Salvor Hardin and the great Merchant Hober Mallow both use what seems to be agency to solve their crises. Granted, they both make use of existing social forces, but especially in the case of Salvor Hardin and the Anacreon crisis, it seemed to be Hardin’s ingenuity and clever use of these social forces that won the day, rather than the social forces themselves. Sure, maybe if Hardin hadn’t done it someone else would have, but I am not so sure. The structure/agency question is a complex one and still the topic of much debate, and Asimov does portray this complexity well in the trilogy.

Despite the great ideas and beautiful Galaxy-building Asimov does, the Foundation trilogy does have some problems, and I think is vastly overrated. Asimov’s writing is not terribly good, and at times his grammar, phrasing, and pacing made me wince. Furthermore, his characters are utterly forgettable, and are largely the same few cardboard cutouts rehashed again and again. He also only includes two named women, Bayta and Arkadia Darrell (other women are present, but only as unnamed male attachments). However, despite these deficiencies, the original Foundation trilogy is a brilliant series that covers hundreds of years of human history, and are well worth a read.

The sequels to the trilogy, however, are an entirely different story. While the first three Foundation books more or less read like a collection of linked short stories and novellas and take place over the course of centuries, the second two feature the same cast and take place over the course of about a year. This gives Asimov more opportunity to develop characters (and, since these were written about twenty years later, his writing also improved – but not all that much), and he does. However, the characters are still a bit unconvincing and feel like cutouts, partly because they are written somewhat inconsistently (especially Trevize).

Now, I have no problems with this, but this gives the latter two books a vastly different feel. However, I strongly feel that Asimov should have left Foundation at the original trilogy and let it stand there. However, under pressure from readers and editors for a sequel, Asimov committed a cardinal sin: he tried to combine the Foundation trilogy with his other works – most notably his Empire and Robots series – into a single universe, and thus twisted the underlying plot of the latter two books almost beyond recognition, in the process destroying everything that made the original trilogy as good as they were. He destroys and dismisses psychohistory, renders meaningless all of the events of the original trilogy, and introduces several deus ex machinas and inexplicable plot phenomena to move the story along. While these two books would have made fine standalone books (with a little editing), the fact that he tied them to Foundation ruined a lot of the work he had already done, and thus I prefer to think of them as not really counting (these two sequels have also turned me off of the prequels he, and others, wrote).

So in the end, I highly recommend the original Foundation trilogy, despite its flaws. I cannot in good conscience recommend the other books in the series, but perhaps familiarity with the Empire and Robot sagas would help a reader there. If you haven’t read Foundation yet, do it, and think about Asimov’s application of structure and agency, which I feel to be at the heart of what makes Foundation so (relatively) timeless and so fascinating.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Readings

 

The Gods Themselves

Of all of the hundreds of novels he wrote, 1972′s The Gods Themselves was Isaac Asimov’s favorite. Having picked it up after reading the first three Foundation novels (a review of that whole series will be coming once I finish all of the one’s he himself wrote), I can understand why it is. The book is divided into three parts, aptly entitled “Against Stupidity…” “…the gods themselves…” “…contend in vain.” The line, as mentioned in the book, is taken from the play The Maids of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller, and each title corresponds very nicely with the contents.

The first bit, “Against Stupidity,” details the struggle of a physicist-turned-somewhat-historian chronicling the invention of the “Electron Pump,” which produces free, unlimited energy with no downsides that is generated by exchanging matter with a different universe with different physical laws. The Pump’s inventor more or less stumbles into inventing it, and most of the technical work was supplied to him through mysterious beings in the other universe, about whom nothing is known, with whom communication is nearly impossible, and without whom the pump will not work, as they are the ones exchanging material.

Naturally, the man credited with inventing unlimited energy becomes an academic giant who rules the academic world with the iron fist of patronage, and much of the first third of the book is a criticism of academia (and particularly its patronage system) and human greed (which causes people to ignore danger when it is easier to deny it). The young scientist who stars in this part of the book, who finds out that the physical laws of the two universes are leaking into each other with disastrous consequences for mankind, spends the first part struggling in vain against mankind’s stupidity and illicitly contacting the “para-universal” beings on the other side of the pump.

The second part was the centrepiece of the book and by far the most interesting and fascinating. The para-beings on the other side of the Electron Pump are, compared to mankind, technological gods. The second part of the book focuses on these “gods,” and takes place in the other universe, focusing on those beings exchanging matter with mankind. What makes this part so brilliant is Asimov’s ability to create utterly alien races and at the same time make them very easy to relate to. One of the unnamed races he described have three sexes that interact in fascinating ways, and I shan’t say more about them as it would absolutely spoil the absolutely brilliant twist that forced me to put down the book for a good twenty minutes to get my bearing. It was simply the best twist I have ever encountered in television or on paper.

The third part, “…contend in vain,” is back in our universe, and takes place on the Moon. It deals with many “hard science” aspects of life on the moon, and brought the anime Planetes to mind in its discussion of native Lunarians (to borrow the Planetes term). In the last third of this very short book, Asimov touches on a lot of the sociopolitical issues of colonization, while simultaneously tying up the loose ends in the first two parts. The title fits a little less well here, as they in the end are not contending in vain, but perhaps the title refers to the lie that the chapter is exposing.

The fact that this book was originally serialized as three stories is rather obvious, as the three parts are rather disconnected thematically, and are only connected by the Electron Pump, which is the focus of part one, more fully explain in part two, and then resolved in part three. Each segment, though, also has its own important aspects of social criticism: part one criticizes greed and academic patronage, part two criticized greed and presented a fascinating alien society and parallel universe, and finally, part three dealt with issues of power and separatism on a colonial holding.

As in his other work, Asimov’s writing can be a bit clunky, and his individual human characters are somewhat flat, but his alien characters absolutely shine, as well as his spot-on presentation and analysis of various social problems that continue to plague us today. The book is well-worth reading, and definitely would be high on a list of science fiction books everyone should read.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Readings

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Hello, Internet! It’s been a while It turns out doctoral programs are a lot of work and a lot of stress. So, I’ve been neglecting my creative side a bit and my blog side a lot over the past… well, year. I’m going to start remedying that, however. I have a backlog of reviews to do, and then some new updates on WIP’s! No new WIP’s this time; I have vowed to finish everything I have started before I go onto anything new, and keep those plot bunnies in check! But for today, I want to turn your attention onto the subject of this review: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

This was my second Heinlein book, after his teen/young adult Tunnel in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and recently reread only to find myself cringing at the writing (though the plot was wonderful and amazingly structured and complex). Stranger in a Strange Land, though, is most definitely not a children’s book. When I started reading it my father warned me about the orgies. I didn’t believe him. I should have.

For those of you who haven’t read much Heinlein, this book is not abnormal for him. Heinlein seems to have a strange fixation on human sexual practices, and loves exploring the violation of sexual taboos. He does have a point; as one of my professors has said on many an occasion, Western society is built around sexual repression. Heinlein breaks the walls of this repression and lets his raw sexuality come out. I bet you didn’t think you’d ever read that on a science fiction site.

In all seriousness, this book is about connections. Heinlein addresses several themes in this book; what it means to be human, what it means to die, the purpose of religion, and most centrally, what it means to love another. Heinlein throws out the idea of separation between romantic and any other type of love, and I think argues that all love is the same, and can be expressed in the same way. This expression of love is not only sex (in Heinlein fashion), but through what is called in the book the “sharing of water.”

The premise of the plot is simple: mankind sends an expedition to Mars. Everyone dies except one, who is raised by the Martians, who are a fantastically alien species ruled by their dead (it makes perfect sense in the book, I promise). When another expedition to Mars pops along, they bring this human, Mike, back to Earth, where he has to learn to be a human again. This is a fascinating way to examine how silly a lot of what we humans do really is, and Heinlein does this wonderfully for the first half of the book. Mike’s curious exploration of Earth and his naive acceptance of everything, including murder and death (remember, he was raised in Martians where the dead rule the living) is really well done and very powerful. Heinlein hit the nail on the head here.

All the while, of course, Mike is having a profound influence on those around him, who see his influence and wonder at the world, and begin to grok (this is where the term comes from; I interpret it as along the lines of “to understand deeply”) him. He becomes more human, and they become more Martian. This was also a good touch, though at first I thought that Heinlein was going to push human thought as superior. Boy, was I wrong.

I found second half of the book  lacking, but others may disagree. Mike eventually comes to accept what he is and rejects both pure Martianism and pure Humanism in favor of his own combination. However, he does not stop at the halfway point of both; I would argue that he retains much more of his Martian learning, and indeed the point of the book is ultimately that he had an enormous transformative effect on Earth through the religion he found and through the real “miracles” he is able to perform. I was not a huge fan of Mike being able to actually have almost magical powers, as I felt it weakened the symbolic power Mike had, but I was willing to accept it. I was willing to accept Heinlein’s critique of religions as trying and failing to grasp at some universal truth; hell, that’s what I believe in a sense.

What made me dislike the second half of the book was Heinlein’s exploration of sexuality. This is not because I’m an enormous prude. I rather enjoyed his early explorations of sexuality and the symbolism humans attach to it in the beginning. I enjoyed his exploring it as a connection between people, and his trying to define what it means to be connected to others. However, his exploration of sexuality I found incredibly misogynistic. I don’t think it was just me, either. At one point, a woman mentions that “9 out of 10″ times, a woman wants to be raped. I did a quadruple-take at this and had to re-read it several times. Then I kept reading, and learned that women liked to be objectified as sex objects. It was how all women expressed their sexuality. And all men expressed their sexuality by objectifying women. It was, as Mike noticed, how things should be.

This was a little hard for me to swallow. If you don’t believe that this was in the book, go back and read the scenes where Mike is traveling the country, and his nurse-friend (whose name eludes me at the time of writing) is working as a showgirl. It’s all there, and all very disturbing (the same misogyny is also present in Dr. Stinky, the Muslim pilot’s, relationship with his wife, as well as in the way Jubal Harshaw relates to his secretaries). Once the blatant misogyny came out, I noticed it everywhere. It truly tainted my perception of the book and of Heinlein himself. He didn’t ever question his misogyny once; it just came out and was portrayed as natural. I ultimately read the book as celebrating the objectification of women, though I doubt Heinlein saw it that way.

Furthermore, I didn’t know what to make of the scenes Heinlein wrote about angels talking in heaven. They confused me, added nothing to the plot or themes, and I think ultimately underlined the symbolism. The idea there, I think, was to show that religion is what we make it and that all of them have part of the truth, but it wasn’t done very effectively, I don’t think.

The book wasn’t a total loss, though. I truly enjoyed most of the first part; the interaction between two utterly alien cultures (and they truly are utterly alien; Heinlein did that very well) was brilliant, and his initial explorations of sex and love as connection were beautiful. Then he ruined it with his misogynistic trumpeting and, I felt, lackluster ending.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It is a classic of science fiction for a reason, and does make one think. If I was allowed, I would recommend the first half, and then tell you to stop. Because that would be bad form, though, I’ll just recommend you read it, but with a jug of salt.

 

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in Readings

 
 
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