Friday, February 26, 2010

1978 BSFA - A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly is a brain-bending, drug-addled quest for identity. In other words, it feels much more typical of Philip K. Dick than The Man in the High Castle.

Bob Arctor lives in a household of addicts to a psychoactive drug called Substance D, but he is also Agent Fred, an undercover cop spying on Bob Arctor's household of bumbling drug addicts. It's basically the old thriller plot - "agent gets lost in deep cover" - with a humorous and satirical twist. Bob and his friends are incredibly paranoid, and Bob/Fred is so far gone that he doesn't even realize that he has very good reasons to feel that way. The two halves of his consciousness work independently against each other for most of the first half of the novel, while his listless household goes through the normal dysfunctions and tribulations of the perennially stoned. The latter parts of the novel are grimmer, as they follow a damaged Bob/Fred through his time in a rehabilitative work camp.

Dick - as anyone who has read a few of his novels is sure to notice - was an addict himself, so he's speaking from experience here. He never glamorizes drug use (in fact, the novel can be quite chilling at the same time it is darkly comic), but the novel works best as a commentary on the drug war (which grew throughout the '70s and came to dominate the American legal system by the '80s). It begins to feel like all of the drug users and dealers are undercover cops, destroying their own and each others lives while doing little to help the real addicts. It's some of Dick's finest work. It's also perhaps his most accessible work, even while it still deals with his core themes of identity and reality. This is probably the best entry point to Dick other than perhaps Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I'd also recommend the Richard Linklater movie as the best PKD adaptation (not to say it's better than Blade Runner, just a better adaptation).

Grade: A-

Monday, February 22, 2010

1978 Hugo and Locus, 1977 Nebula - GATEWAY by Frederik Pohl

Gateway has a fantastic set-up. As humans reach out to other planets in the solar system, they discover ancient artifacts from a disappeared alien race called the Heechee. These artifacts eventually lead them to a massive space station (the Gateway itself) and hundreds of ships that can be programmed for interstellar jumps. Pilots have little control over where the ships go, and the missions are usually extremely dangerous, but brave prospectors go out anyway under the sponsorship of the Gateway Corporation in the hopes of finding profitable Heechee technology.

I loved the concept undergirding the novel. The characters I did not love as much. The central character and narrator is Robinette (or Bob) Broadhead, a poor Wyoming food miner (yes, Earth is still overcrowded and over-polluted, as ever of late – actually, in a nice and timely twist, people mostly want to get rich so they can have decent healthcare coverage – the rich are virtually immortal; the poor not so much), who wins the lottery and uses the money to buy a ticket to Gateway. The novel is actually told in alternating chapters: the first follow an older and very wealthy Broadhead through a series of psychotherapy sessions, while the others flashback to his younger prospecting days on Gateway. Pohl has much the same approach to human psychology here that he had in Man Plus; basically, people are selfish, cowardly, and extremely fragile, and lovers are untrustworthy. On the one hand, I love that Pohl attempts to bring so much psychological complexity to his novel. On the other hand, something about the execution rubs me the wrong way, just as it did in Man Plus.

I don’t mind reading about flawed characters, but Pohl’s can be so flawed that they fall flat. And they can be really really annoying. Not to mention the fact that Broadhead does some very despicable things, including some violent acts against the women he loves. Pohl doesn’t treat these acts lightly, but I didn’t quite feel that they were treated with the requisite gravity. Pohl seems to want us to forgive Bob and sympathize with him, but he makes it pretty damn hard to do so. Again, I don’t mind dark, unsympathetic characters, but I think Pohl works too hard to excuse some really deplorable behavior. And, in the end, the characters don’t have the complexity of, say, Ursula K. LeGuin’s.

I certainly see why the awards all took notice of this work. The concept alone deserves recognition, and there are some interesting writing tricks – Pohl disperses odd newspaper ads*, corporate reports, poetry, and even paystubs through the novel to help build the universe (though this isn’t as revolutionary or effective as what we saw in Stand on Zanzibar). And it is very well-written as well. Overall, I enjoyed the novel; the characters just didn’t quite work for me.

*it sort of amazes me that we’re in the late ‘70s and still no one has anticipated the digital age.

Grade: A-

Friday, February 19, 2010

1977 World Fantasy Award - DOCTOR RAT by William Kotzwinkle

William Kotzwinkle is probably best known as the writer of the novelization of ET (and a sequel set after ET got home). I actually know his work from a novel I read over a decade ago, The Bear Who Came Over the Mountain, about a bear who stumbles upon a manuscript, manages to get it published and becomes a literary celebrity. I remember it as a genuinely hilarious book.

Doctor Rat is not as funny, though it gets a lot of recognition as a comic novel. It’s primarily about animal rights and a rather emotional argument for an end to experimentation on animals. The novel switches back and forth between two contemporaneous storylines. On one hand, we have the story of Dr Rat, a lab rat who has been thoroughly tortured by a team of scientists and has developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite his own pain, he identifies with the scientists and argues angrily against their critics among the other lab animals. The parallel narrative is a bit more obscure at first. It starts with a dog on a walk who begins to hear rumblings from dog community, and then begins to move to different animals, all of whom seem to be onto some big occurrence. We get whales singing to each other, and finally a host of African animals (with special attention paid to elephants). It eventually becomes apparent that the animals are fed up with humanity’s callous attitude towards them and are gathering for a council to protest. This spontaneous animal protest also reaches into Dr Rat’s lab, and he must navigate a massive riot that breaks out among the animals there.

There are some nice passages and a few funny moments with Dr Rat, but I can’t say I was enthralled by the novel, nor was I really swayed by Kotzwinkle’s arguments. It's not that I’m a fan of animal cruelty, but I’d prefer to see the topic of experimentation on animals explored with a bit more nuance. Kotzwinkle presents the scientists as evil sadists who torture the animals for fun. I’m not sure what labs were like in the ‘70s, but I know that more thought is put into the ethics of the situation today. I think most people would see a clear difference between cancer research and cosmetic testing, for instance. I also think the extent to which Kotzwinkle anthropomorphizes the animals is a cheat and a shallow over-simplification. He tries to add species-specific touches, but we mostly get human-style narrations.

Generally, I’m not interested in reading a polemic as a novel, even when I might largely agree with the message, and Kotzwinkle certainly doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of such an issue-oriented work here. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the novel really wasn’t engaging or entertaining. At least it was short.

Grade: D

Monday, February 15, 2010

1977 Hugo and 1976 Nebula for Novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, 1974 Hugo for Novella “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr.

I’ve never had a separate entry for short story (or novella) awards before, but these two stories and their author were so fascinating (and not really represented in any other categories) that I had to take a moment to talk about them.

What’s fascinating about the “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is that it’s straight-up cyberpunk, almost a decade ahead of schedule. After an unattractive and miserable girl named Philadelphia Burke survives a suicide attempt, she is hired by the Global Transmission Corporation (GTX) to inhabit a “remote” body of a mega-celebrity or “god” named Delphi for product placement (since explicit advertisements have been banned). Soon, she discovers just how much corporations like GTX are manipulating and misleading people around the world. This story is so cyberpunk that it even annoyed me for the same reasons as cyberpunk – there’s an overuse of jargon and slang and an in-your-face attitude that grates, as well as a tendency to exaggerate the dangers of technology to help establish the dystopian future du jour. There’s no question that this story is hugely influential though.

In “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” three (male) astronauts are kicked into the future by a solar flare and rescued by an all female crew. I won’t reveal the story’s twist (though it’s fairly obvious), but most of what follows is a commentary on gender politics. I do feel like Tiptree stacks the deck a bit by making the crew a group of frat-boys, but it is a fascinating story idea even if I disagree with some of the conclusions.

James Tiptree, by the way, was a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a psychology Ph.D., World War II veteran and former CIA employee. No one in the science fiction community knew her gender until after these stories were published (which led to some embarrassing discussions of her works in anthologies). I was a bit surprised to see a woman writer hiding her gender in the 1970s; after all, Ursula LeGuin did quite well in the decade. But, considering that Joanne Rowling was still worried about her gender affecting the response to her work in the late 1990s, maybe it’s not so surprising. Sheldon is one of the most unique and challenging voices I’ve read for this project, especially on gender, and, unfortunately, I can see how her work might have been dismissed more easily by her male contemporaries if she had published it as Alice Sheldon. Shedlon also had a very dark point of view that pervades her work, and she (with her husband) committed suicide in 1987.

"Houston" Grade: B+

"Plugged In" Grade: B-

Friday, February 12, 2010

1977 Hugo and Locus - WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG - Kate Wilhelm

Kate Wilhelm is only the second female writer to win one of these big science fiction awards. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, she seems to be more interested in the cultural implications of technology or alternative ways of ordering society. It also reminded me a great deal of two later novels by female authors: P. D. James’ Children of Men and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Once again, we’re in the ‘70s dystopian world of over-population and environmental disaster. The action begins on a small farm (I believe it’s in Virginia, but I don’t think the novel ever says for certain), where we meet David, a young medical student who has a crush on his cousin, Celia. These proceedings have the feel of a traditional family epic, but the novel quickly takes a turn. Society around the farm is crumbling, new epidemic plagues are killing millions of people around the world, and the rest are starving. At the heart of all these problems is the fact that most animals (pretty much all vertebrates) are becoming sterile, including humans and the domestic animals that they require for food. David and his family have seen the crisis coming, and they plan to save humanity through cloning. They retreat to their family farm, which they manage to defend from the death throes of humanity, and they dive into their research.

I quite loved the novel at this point. It’s an intriguing post-apocalyptic vision that moved very quickly. This all happens in the first fifty pages, and I was looking forward to the story of rebuilding human society from the ground up that I assumed Wilhelm was going to tell. But, instead, the book takes another turn. You see, as anyone who has watched a pulp science fiction movie on the subject knows, clones are eviiiiiiiiiil. David’s clones, in particular, have a weird group consciousness and are generally creepy. They take over the project of rebuilding humanity in their own creepy clone image. The latter half of the novel gets more interesting again, as we get the story of a non-cloned son of clones, Mark, who wants a return to individuality.

There are some interesting ideas here, overall, and this is a very well-written novel, but I could never really get over the implausibility of the evil psychic clones. It’s a cheesy horror-film idea at the center of an adult contemplation of changing society, and I’m afraid that it almost ruined a pretty good novel for me.

By the way, for the first time in years, we have a difference of opinion between Hugo and Nebula (the writers chose Pohl’s Man Plus over Wilhelm’s book, which was nominated). I don’t think either book was entirely successful – both suffer from shallow pop-psych views of human jealousy and betrayal and the roles that experimentation on humans would have on both. Pohl’s cyborg insanity is more believable than Wilhelm’s evil groupthink clones, but Wilhelm’s novel is brisker and more entertaining. I’ll give the nod to the Hugo winner yet again.

Grade: B

Monday, February 8, 2010

1976 World Fantasy Award - BID TIME RETURN by Richard Matheson

Though not a household name, Richard Matheson is a huge figure in this era of science fiction and fantasy (and especially horror). He wrote several episodes of The Twilight Zone (including some of my favorites like The Invaders and Nick of Time). He wrote an episode of Star Trek (“The Enemy Within,” in which Shatner heroically battles evil Shatner). He wrote the novel that The Incredible Shrinking Man was based on (as well as novels that inspired later films What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, and a film of this work, starring Christopher Reeve). He also influenced a new generation of horror/fantasy authors, with Stephen King among those that worship him.

Bid Time Return, usually known now as Somewhere in Time, is a metaphysical, time-travelling romance. The novel is presented as the journal of Richard Collier (an analogue of Matheson) who goes to San Diego’s Coronado Hotel after discovering that he has terminal cancer. While there, he falls in love with a picture of an actress from 1896. He researches the woman, falls hopelessly in love with her, and finally decides to travel back in time through new age meditation techniques in order to meet her.

There’s some good material here, and the prose remains imminently readable throughout. I particularly like a nice trick Matheson plays with the prose. The novel starts out in a clipped staccato, partly because Collier is dictating into a recorder, but mostly to represent the fast-pace of the modern world and the simple, unadorned nature of contemporary prose. But, the more Collier becomes absorbed with the Victorian world of 1896, the more ornate his language becomes. The effect is somewhat ruined by Matheson (through Collier) pointing out what he’s done, but I still appreciated it.

I did have a few problems with this novel, however. First, it reminded me a bit too much of Jack Finney’s 1960 novel Time and Again. In Finney’s book, the main character uses meditation techniques to travel from 1969 to 1882, and a historic building plays a key role as well. But, that novel is more lavish and immersive in its attention to detail, and has a darker and more ambiguous plot than the simple love story here. Matheson’s novel just didn’t quite bear the comparison.

Also, as a historian, I generally dislike nostalgia pieces like this. I could name a hundred ways that 1976 was superior to 1896. I love historic and time travel fiction, but I expect more nuance in the presentation of the past.

Finally, and most fatally, I did not buy the relationship between Collier and the actress Elise. They have no chemistry, and their early meetings are a parade of embarrassing faux pas. They only come together because they are destined to come together, and I didn’t find that very satisfying from a character standpoint.

Grade: B-

Friday, February 5, 2010

1976 Saturn - LOGAN'S RUN

A ‘70s science fiction film, and it’s a dystopia? What are the chances? Logan’s Run has some potential, and there’s actually a very solid bit in the middle that realizes that potential and manages to be quite decent. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a big old mess.

The film takes place an unspecified period of time in the future. Due to pollution and overpopulation (sound familiar?), humanity has withdrawn to domed cities where population is strictly controlled. People are created in test tubes and rapidly aged to adulthood. When they reach thirty, their time is up, and they are to report to a mass execution, which is staged as an elaborate carnival that offers the hope (a false one, as it soon becomes apparent) of reincarnation. Some residents of the settlement decide to make a run for it rather than offer themselves up for execution, and there is a brutal police force (known as “sandmen”) who hunt down and execute “runners.” The titular Logan 5 (Michael York) is one of these sandmen, and he begins to suspect that the runners have a secret organization. The supercomputer that runs the dome agrees and sends Logan undercover as a runner to ferret out the secret sanctuary that hides the society’s escapees.

During their brief lives, people are pretty hedonistic; they merely dial up a sexual partner when they’re in the mood, and more permanent relationships are unheard of. Logan dials up a girl named Jessica 6, who seems to be associated with the runner conspiracy, but he soon begins to fall in love with her. Jenny Agutter plays Jessica 6, and, as far as I’m concerned, she steals the show. She completely outshines the late Farah Fawcett Majors, who gets big billing for a bit part. As part of his undercover operation, Logan goes on the run with Jessica, but they’re soon running for real, and they eventually make it beyond the dome, where they meet their first old person, a crazy cat man played by Peter Ustinov. And that’s just the first half of the movie.

There’s obviously a lot going on here, but at the same time, it’s all rather shallow. The society of the dome isn’t all that believable, and everyone is pretty vapid. I guess that’s the point, but I didn’t find it all that entertaining watching attractive but dumb people wander about aimlessly in shimmery pastel robes, make out and do drugs. The special effects and music during the dome sequences are truly terrible (the dome is represented in establishing shots by a cheap model that makes most model train sets look like they were built by WETA; the music, by the usually great composer Jerry Goldsmith, is bad, assonant synthesizer beeping noises). I know I should cut a 70s film some slack on effects, but his film came out just months before Star Wars and cost about as much money to make. There is really no excuse.

Once Logan and Jessica get out, the production values seem to go up, but the plot grinds to a halt. Still, these scenes were the strongest part of the film ; we finally learn a bit about this world’s history and the characters actually get to act like real people for half an hour. I’m afraid to say that I found the rest of the proceedings almost unwatchable.

Grade: C+

Monday, February 1, 2010

1976 Nebula - MAN PLUS by Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl had been a major figure in science fiction for some time before he picked up this Nebula Award. He had actually edited major science fiction magazines back in the ‘30s.

Man Plus tells the story of a near-future mission to Mars. Rather than dealing with the red planet’s harsh climate through terraforming, scientists instead plan to create a cyborg that can live out in the open on Mars. It’s easier to change people than it is to change a whole planet. The problem is that this intense medical procedure has dramatic psychological effects on the subjects. The first such cyborg dies suddenly from information overload, and an astronaut named Roger Torraway is next on the list. Most of the novel is concerned with Torraway’s anguish as his body is completely overhauled, and he is slowly transformed into a nine foot tall, solar-powered, armored creature that doesn’t eat, drink, or breathe.

The main subplot of the book is the rapidly deteriorating state of world. We learn that the United States is on the verge of a war with China, the President is wildly unpopular, and models predict that there will be societal collapse and nuclear war if the mission to Mars does not succeed (apparently, the news will unite humanity…which may have seemed more plausible a few years after Apollo 11 than it does today).

The biggest source of Roger’s anguish is his beautiful wife, who is clearly cheating on him throughout the procedure. This was my least favorite aspect of the book; we spend a lot of time with Torraway’s sexual frustrations and his rather annoying homelife. At times, I felt like I was watching an ABC primetime soap called Desperate Astronaut’s Wives. This storyline really does make up the bulk of the book.

Pohl’s writing style is creative and engaging. At first, the novel seems to be narrated in the third person omniscient, but we eventually learn that there is an actual narrator, which makes for an interesting mystery and a fun writing trick (though the eventual resolution was not all that thrilling). The problem is that there’s simply not enough plot here to sustain the novel. It could have been a brilliant short story, but as it is, it’s a thin story with over a hundred pages of soap opera padding.

Grade: C