Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982

Book Review: The Hugo Winners Volume 5 1980-1982 edited by Isaac Asimov

The Hugo Awards are given out every year by the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon.)  This series of books from 1986 collected the winners in the three short fiction categories: Novella  (17,500-40,000 words), Novelette (7,500-17,500 words) and Short Story (less than 7,500 words.)  Anything over 40,000 words is considered a novel.  The volume is organized by year, in the order from longest to shortest, giving a kind of wave effect.

The Hugo Winners Volume 5

“Editor” Isaac Asimov spends much of the introduction detailing the history of the science fiction magazine Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, of which he was the figurehead.  It’s relevant because 1980 was the first year a story from that magazine won a Hugo.

“Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longyear was that story.  Two soldiers from opposing sides are stranded on a deserted island–one of whom is a pregnant alien.  To survive, they must work together, and come to respect each other and bridge the gap between their cultures.   This one was made into a movie, and Hollywood inserted an actual mine run by enemies.  Perhaps this was necessary as the emotional climax of the story is a three-hour recitation of family history, but Mr. Longyear was not well pleased.   It’s an excellent story.

“Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin is a chiller about a man who collects exotic pets.  The Sandkings of the title are hive-mind creatures vaguely reminiscent of ants.  They come in sets of four colored “castles” which have wars until only one remains.  Simon Kress, however, is a cruel man and does not want to wait for his pets to war in their own time.   How does it end?  It’s by George R.R. Martin, how do you think it ends?  An outstanding application of horror sensibilities to science fiction.

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” is also by George R.R. Martin, the first time an author had ever won two of the short categories in the same year.  An inquistor for a future Catholic church is sent to stamp out a heresy that venerates Judas Iscariot (and dragons.)   The inquisitor finds it a particularly appealing heresy, well-crafted and visually attractive.  But that’s not the real trap–there’s a more dangerous heresy underneath.  Of note is that the heretics have vandalized the local equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia so that those doing research would find supporting evidence for the heresy.

Also in 1980, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke took home the novel Hugo, and Alien won Best Dramatic Presentation.  Barry B. Longyear was also picked as Best New Writer.

“Lost Dorsai” by Gordon R. Dickson is as you might suspect set in his Dorsai Cycle, a story universe where the resource-poor planet Dorsai makes its employment credits by hiring out its inhabitants as top-notch mercenary soldiers.  This story tackles the question of what happens when a Dorsai decides that he will not kill humans under any circumstances.  Even when he’s one of a handful of people in a fortress surrounded by bloodthirsty revolutionaries.   What does make a man a hero, anyway?

“The Cloak and the Staff” is also by Mr. Dickson, making him the second author to win two of the short categories in the same year.  Both he and Mr. Martin had won the third short category previously as well.  The Aalaag are superior to Earthlings in every way, and hold our planet in an unbreakable grip.   Even if somehow humans managed to rise up and kill all the Aalaag on Earth, the vast Aalaag Empire would simply wipe out the inhabitants and replant.  Courier Shane knows this better than almost anyone else, and yet he finds that he’s sparked a resistance movement with a bit of graffiti.   He manages to save one rebel for the moment, but there’s noting more he or anyone can do….

“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak concerns an archaeologist who goes back to the dig site of some cave paintings one last time.  He discovers the title grotto, and its connection to one of the dig workers.   It’s a rather sad story about a man who wants one person to know the truth before he leaves again.

Also in 1981, The Snow Queen won Best Novel for Joan D. Vinge, Best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back, and Somtow Sucharitkul (S.P.  Somtow) was Best New Writer.

“The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson concerns an expedition to Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, which turns deadly due to a moment of inattention.

A bit of context for our younger readers–the turn of the 1980s is when role-playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, went from an obscure hobby to a cultural phenomenon.   The usual cultural conservative distrust of anything new that kids get into converged with the 1980s “Satanic Panic” in which people sincerely believed there was a worldwide network of Satanists abusing children and performing human sacrifices.  So many people worried that RPGs would either teach children how to perform actual black magic (see Jack Chick’s unintentionally hilarious Dark Dungeons for an example of this thinking) or make impressionable teens unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and thus act out their violent pretendy fun times on real people.  This last one was a bit more plausible; most roleplayers know that one guy who takes the game way too seriously, akin to the sportsball fans that have violent temper tantrums when their team loses.

Mr. Anderson’s story works with the latter concept; it never uses the phrase “role-playing games” as those died out during a bad time in human history–the future equivalent is “psychodramas.”  Three-quarters of the expedition have been playing in the same game for the last eight years as their larger ship has been headed to Saturn.  In the future, psychiatry has been replaced by pharmacology to balance brain chemistry, and no one thought ahead about the possible consequences.  So when the players find themselves in a fantastic landscape that suits their story, they fall into a semihypnotic state acting out the play, and miss the real danger.

Mind, Poul Anderson also shows the strength that can be drawn from imagination, as the fantasy helps sustain the strength of the survivors, even as they know they must not succumb to it and ignore what must be done.  One of the flashbacks is about the significant other who doesn’t “get” role-playing games, and is unable to distinguish between in-character romance and an actual affair between players.  She forces the player to choose between her and the gaming group–it does not turn out the way she hoped.

“Unicorn Variations” by Roger Zelazny is more in the fantasy realm than straight science fiction.  When a species goes extinct, a new species comes to take its place.  And in a future where extinctions have become even more common, the unicorns have grown impatient to replace humans.   But one human bargains with the unicorn representative.  If he can beat it in a game of chess, the unicorn will not directly hasten the extinction of humans.  Unicorns, as it turns out, are very good at chess…but the human turns out to have a surprise backer.   If you have your chessboard handy, play along!

“The Pusher” by John Varley, is set in a future with relativistic space travel and time dilation.  That is, time on ship passes more slowly than for those standing still.  Six months on board is thirty years back on Earth.  Ian Haise, a “pusher” (starship crewmember) doesn’t want to entirely lose touch with those on the ground, so he has a scheme to befriend children so that when he returns decades later, they will remember him and welcome his return.  It’s an uncomfortable story, as Haise’s methods are strikingly similar to those used by a pedophile to “groom” victims.

1982’s Best Novel was Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, Raiders of the Lost Ark took home the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and the Best New Writer was Alexis Gilliland (who beat out David Brin!)

This collection really strikes a chord for me as it’s in my early adulthood, and I read most of these stories first-run.  It looks “modern” to me in ways that early SF doesn’t, and the field was becoming more diverse (even though all these stories happen to be by white guys.)   It’s worth finding just for “Sandkings” if you’ve never read that story, but the others are good as well, especially “Enemy Mine.”

Oh, and “Sandkings” was also loosely adapted for an Outer Limits episode.  Enjoy!

 

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Book Review: Pitch Perfect

Book Review: Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time by Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman

Disclaimer:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes in the final product.

Pitch Perfect

Mr. McGowan begins the book with a story about how he learned an important lesson about communications skills by being punched in the face.  Because if the person he was talking to had learned some of the skills taught in this book, they’d have had a better response than punching a reporter in the face on camera.  No matter how obnoxious the reporter is.

In his work as a television reporter and producer for such shows as A Current Affair and CBS News, Mr. McGowan learned many valuable lessons about speech and nonverbal communication, which then served him well as a communication coach to celebrities, corporate managers and other people who needed a hand up.

This book covers most of the information he tells his clients, from preparing for speaking ahead of time, to making sure your most important material (and only your most important material) is front and center, to the best way to stand and place your hands during a speech.  It doesn’t include the specific personal coaching he gets the big money for, but offers tips on how to spot your weaknesses yourself and overcome them.

Throughout, the writers tell stories from Mr. McGowan’s career, and from the media presentations of famous people, that illustrate the points.   There are some illustrations in the section on body language and facial expressions (you can train to show the interest you actually feel, rather than a blank stare.)

I found the book well-organized and easy to read, with many helpful tips.  It should be useful for a wide variety of people from job-seekers like myself to the person who’s suddenly called upon to say a few words at a wedding.  There is a glossary, but no index was in the proof copy–it may be added for the published version.

I know that I have seen many examples in my own life of people who could use a bit more help with their verbal communication skills, and hope that some of them will find this volume.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...