Posted tagged ‘society’

A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

October 7, 2022

Often the internet seems like a collection of lists: the 100 best pop-songs, the 15 worst scams, and all the rest.  People seem to respond to numbered compilations.

In the science-fiction realm, I’ve read quite a few lists about some aspect of “best”, whether of this year, or by women authors, or the most technologically significant.

In the end, they are all personal lists – usually one person’s idea and often displaying whatever social correctness we are supposed to elevate.

This is my list, based on an admittedly incomplete sampling, although over quite a few decades.  Many of them were written in the 1950s through 1960s, which to me is the bedrock of modern science-fiction.  You can’t really understand where science-fiction is today without recognizing the immense talent that preceded the current flowering of the genre and its many brilliant authors.

If you were to read the novels mentioned here, I feel you could only come away with a deep appreciation for the wonder and otherness that science-fiction seeks to portray.

Such is the depth of the field that many variations of this list are possible.  This particular one though has stories that touched me on many different levels, and I think still could for anyone who reads them anew.

As I went through these titles, I was struck hard again by the sweep of imagination of the authors.  The daring.

A few of the entries below are trilogies or series, but in my mind those are one big novel.

I will go through them chronologically.

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

I was hard-pressed whether to select this dystopian novel, published in 1932, or George Orwell’s later take on the same theme, 1984.  I read them both in a log cabin in northern British Columbia in the 1960s as an impressionable boy.  They served to make me deeply suspicious of all forms of authority.

BNWIn the end, Huxley’s novel is the more menacing of the two.  While 1984 portrays overwhelming brutality against the individual by the state, in Brave New World people are effectively seduced to accept their utter servitude. As Huxley stated in a letter to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

2. Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Set against a backdrop of galactic empire, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon founds a secretive branch of mathematical sociology.  It enables him to predict the future of large populations, and through it, he predicts the fall of the empire.  He foresees a new Dark Age lasting 30,000 years, but through his new discipline, he endeavours to slightly deflect for the better the onrushing series of events.  In later millenia he appears as a kind of hologram, although long dead, to help guide what happens, due to his calculations.

FoundationI still remember holding the hard-back volumes of this intriguing story by Isaac Asimov which began with the trilogy from 1951 onward, eventually extending to more volumes in the 1980s.  I read it several times during my teenage years.  Hari Seldon was an amazing character to me.  Foundation won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966.

Of course Isaac Asimov was one of the most famous of science-fiction writers, with work ranging from the I, Robot series to the novel The Caves of Steel.

3. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

The human race is about to enter a new phase.  At the end of this poignant story, published in 1953, we come to understand that children are undergoing a transformation.  They are metamorphosing into something that transcends human existence.  The facilitators of this change are a tragic alien race who peacefully invaded Earth.

CEThe aliens are only caretakers of the human race while it undergoes the transformation into something spiritually superior.  What has been the human race will be no more.

The English author, Arthur C. Clarke was a writer, futurist and inventor who also wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other novels such as Rendezvous with Rama.  He was a well-known proponent of space travel. 

I remember him also for short stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God, where Tibetan monks strive to encode all the possible names of God.  They believe the universe was created for this purpose.  They need modern technology to complete their task, and enlist the expertise of two Westerners.  As the monks complete their long mission, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 

4. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

A novel about six misfits, each with a strange power, who come together after many tribulations to form a new kind of human being, homo gestalt, a whole of combined consciousness.

MoreThe story, published in 1953, was praised by some reviewers for “its crystal-clear prose, its intense human warmth and its depth of psychological probing.”

Others said the novel “transcends its own terms and becomes Sturgeon’s greatest statement of one of his obsessive themes, loneliness and how to cure it.”

Sturgeon also coined “Sturgeons Law”: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

5. The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

Another novel from 1953, this apocalyptic story begins with a journalist and his wife observing the fall of mysterious objects into the ocean.

Kraken

The story has three sections: the first where the aliens arrive and do mysterious underwater things, the second when the aliens attack in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate, and civilization collapses. This all takes place over many years.

A professorial third character with considerable insight tries to warn everyone about what may happen, but is widely ignored due to his alienating manner.

Even by the end of the novel, nobody ever sees the aliens.

Reviewers praised the novel as “a solid and admirable story of small-scale human reactions to vast terror.”

John Wyndham, a British author, also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, among other notable works.

6. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959 and winning the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961, this story covers a post-apocalyptic period of thousands of years. The apocalypse was occasioned by nuclear holocaust.

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of the Catholic Church is on a vigil in the Utah desert. Brother Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing “relics”, such as a 20th-century shopping list which becomes sanctified as a holy remnant of an ancient world. The Church persists as the preserver of civilization.

Canticle

The novel has been subject to considerable literary and critical analysis. In other words, it came to be treated with respect outside the science-fiction genre.

The novel is structured in three parts separated by six hundred years. This book was my first exposure to any model of cultural history. In Miller’s own words from another work: “All societies go through three phases…. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest…. Then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

In the end, this cyclical process catches up, in a tragic way, to all that humanity hopes to accomplish.

7. The High Crusade, Poul Anderson

When an extraterrestrial scout ship lands in medieval England, it is encountered by a knight recruiting a force to help Edward III in the Hundred Years War against France. It seems the aliens have forgotten how to do hand-to-hand combat, and Sir Roger and his men capture the ship.

High

The whole set-up still makes me grin. Sir Roger and company think the ship is a French trick. The local villagers finish off the rest of the alien force, except for one, and join the soldiers in the ship. Sir Roger determines to go to France to win the war and then liberate the Holy Land.

With the grudging aid of the last alien, representing a tyrannical empire bent on invading Earth, they take off. The alien misleads the Englishmen and the ship actually heads off towards another of the alien empire’s worlds. Adventures ensue.

The prolific Poul Anderson was one of the great science fiction authors. His books were nominated for seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. The High Crusade was published in 1960. Anderson also wrote such novels as There Will Be Time (1972) and The Boat of A Million Years (1989).

8. Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye

Another post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, Dark Universe from 1961 finds survivors retreated underground, where they live in total darkness.

Dark UniSince the survivors have no visual ideas of Light and Darkness, the concepts become religious. They believe that the Light Almighty banished humankind from Paradise during a conflict with the demon, Radiation, and his two lieutenants, Cobalt and Strontium.

Jared is the son of the leader of the survivors who use click-stones and echoes to navigate the darkness. Jared goes on a quest for Darkness and Light and encounters another clan of survivors who use infrared to get around.

Galouye creates an ingenious world, which in the end is redeemed by the Light. Many have noted the resemblance of the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1962, but lost out to the next novel in this list.

9. Stranger in A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

This is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who comes to Earth and encounters the United States after World War III, where religions are powerful.

He becomes a celebrity and his presence begins to transform human society. He exhibits psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, while having a kind of open-minded innocence.

However, his appearance and actions on Earth shake the political and cultural balance and his life becomes in danger.

According to Wikipedia, Heinlein named his main character “Smith” because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials.

Stranger

He also was to write about the novel, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines.”

It became the first science-fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.

During the 1960s, the book became a countercultural favorite, not least for the word “grok” which took on the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated. When you grok something, you not only understand it, you become, in some sense, a part of it, and it, a part of you.

10. The Immortals, James Gunn

Published in 1962 and incorporating several previously published stories, this is the chronicle of a small group of immortals surviving on the edge of a dystopian society which is striving to hunt them down.

Immortals

They are living fountains-of-youth, due to a genetic mutation, whose blood can make others immortal too (if replenished every month).

As one reviewer on Goodreads notes: “…The Immortals opens with scenes that could almost come from a crime novel rather than a science fiction story. Private detectives are hired, people are on the run, evil rich men will do anything to get what they want, no one can be trusted.”

I remember it for its thriller-like excitement and the tense pacing of its writing.

James Gunn, who only recently died in 2020, was a well-known professor of English and promoter of science-fiction as a humanistic endeavour at the University of Kansas.

11. Cities In Flight series, James Blish

This four book series was published from 1950 to 1962, but the one that sticks with me most was A Life For the Stars from 1962.

The premise is that entire cities from Earth fly among the stars using an anti-gravity device called the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, or spindizzy for short.

Cities_in_Flight

The spindizzy allowed some cities to escape the oppression of a tyrannical regime on Earth and look for work among the other denizens of the galaxy.

The 1962 book describes the rise of 16-year-old Chris Deford who eventually becomes the city manager of New York City as it wanders through the cosmos.

These are stories for which the term “space opera” was invented.

The American writer James Blish also wrote a series of Star Trek novelizations and the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience in 1959.

12. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

As a lonely teenager, there was something about this story of a young man managing a way station for time travelers that resonated with me. The young man, Enoch, stays the same age while those in the normal world around him get older, and this gets difficult to explain after a while. Originally he is a Civil War veteran.

Way

Eventually after a hundred years or so, the US Government takes an interest and a CIA agent is sent to investigate him. This is the beginning of many adventures.

Published in 1963, the book went on to win the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.

Clifford Simak had an unique, warm style of writing.

He once stated:

“Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme….”

In 2019, Netflix announced plans, so far unfulfilled, to make a movie based on the book.

13. White Lotus, John Hersey

Here is a writer from the literary mainstream who created one of the best alternative history novels that I’ve come across. Some might call it speculative fiction, or other terms to make it more respectable, but it is still science-fiction to me.

In this 1965 novel, white Americans have become enslaved by the Chinese and are now a subservient race. The story follows a young Arizona girl renamed White Lotus.

White Lotus

In the memorable prologue of the story, White Lotus raises one knee and stands on the other foot to take the posture of a sleeping bird, in an effort to shame the Chinese governor as a non-violent protest against tyrannical treatment.

Her simple act of standing before her captors on one leg, head bowed like a sleeping bird becomes an often repeated act of nonviolent civil disobedience, an unconventional act in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

John Hersey was born in China, the son of Protestant missionaries, and learned to speak Chinese before he learned English.

As a journalist, his account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, celebrated for its thoughtful and horrified humanity, was judged the finest piece of journalism of the 20th Century by a 36-person panel associated with New York University.

Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1945.

14. Ubik, Phillip K. Dick

Phillip Dick was a strange and volatile man. He is now celebrated for the movie adaptations of such writings as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) and The Minority Report (Minority Report).

He had a hallucinogenic view of reality fed in part by actual hallucinogens.

But as Wikipedia points out:

Ubik

“His fiction explored varied philosophical and social questions such as the nature of reality, perception, human nature, and identity, and commonly featured characters struggling against elements such as alternate realities, illusory environments, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.”

His 1969 novel Ubik illustrates much of this. In it psychic powers are used by corporations for business espionage, and cryonic technology preserves recently deceased people in hibernation.

It follows Joe Chip, a technician at a psychic agency who, after an assassination attempt, begins to experience strange alterations in reality that can be temporarily reversed by a mysterious store-bought substance called Ubik.

15. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

In this 1971 novel, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. 

From this simple and imaginative premise, Le Guin devises a tale about a man who goes to a psychiatrist about his problem. The psychiatrist understands immediately the power his patient wields.

Lathe

At one point the protagonist dreams of aliens who become a reality.

The patient finally understands that he must preserve reality itself as the psychiatrist becomes adept at manipulating the man’s dreams for his own purposes.

Of course Le Guin is famous for many of her thoughtful, culturally significant novels, including The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy. She also wrote much non-fiction, including essays about her craft, which I found quite inspiring (Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).

16. The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

This novel from 1972 is the third in what has been called British author Brunner’s near future “Club of Rome Quartet.” The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with consumerism and rampant pollution. Stand On Zanzibar was about overpopulation, The Jagged Orbit concerned itself with racial tension and violence, and the later The Shockwave Rider dealt with technology and future shock.

Sheep

As much as I admire these books and Brunner, they often now seem outdated, surpassed by actual events. But his prescience in many cases was spot-on. In Shockwave Rider from 1975, for instance, he created a computer hacker hero before anyone even heard of such a thing.

In The Sheep Look Up, water pollution is so severe that “don’t drink” notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can’t go outside without wearing masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don’t get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains. (Not so far-fetched, no?)

It follows several characters over the course of a year as their paths intertwine while they struggle to cope with the drastic changes in the environment, and as the United States starts to collapse under the weight of pollution. It is a pessimistic novel redeemed for me by its somewhat experimental structure, and the density of its ideas and insights about our world’s problems.

17. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite science-fiction authors for the excellence of his writing, the philosophical cast of his mind, and his tendency towards themes of transcendence.

He is more celebrated for earlier novels such as A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth, deservedly so, but for some reason this novel sticks with me more.

Lord Val

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), part of what is known as the Majipoor Series, incorporates aliens, galactic empire, descendants of colonists, lords, castles and wizards to become that odd genre creature, science fantasy.

The story takes place on the gigantic planet Majipoor. It is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. We follow a young man named Valentine who suffers from amnesia and who joins a troupe of jugglers during celebrations for the ascension of a new Coronal, the emperor of this planet, also named Valentine (which is said to be a very common name).

Gradually, we learn that the juggling Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, and has had his true body stolen from him. He is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor.

The planet of Majipoor becomes another character in the narrative. It is full of people, creatures, machines, alien races and interesting locations.

This straightforward, in many ways, adventure story exhibits Silverberg’s wonderful writing craftsmanship.

18. Plague Year Trilogy, Jeff Carlson

Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

Plague

Either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet. All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.

With thriller-like pacing, the Plague Year trilogy (begun in 2007) portrays humanity in extremis with two key characters struggling to survive and turn the tide. Over the three volumes, with Plague War in 2008, and Plague Zone in 2009, we are taken on a remarkable adventure. Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and an impressive talent for survival, and Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech together fight to save the world.

In 2008, Plague War was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Sadly, Jeff Carlson died in 2017 of cancer at only 48 years old.

19. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin, another author from the literary mainstream, wrote The Passage, 2010, The Twelve, 2012, and The City of Mirrors, 2016, after his daughter asked him to write a book about a “girl who saves the world.”

Passage

These are books slightly hard to define in that they straddle the intersection of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Some blithely describe them as novels about vampires, which are a major element, but this categorization does an injustice to the depth of the writing, characterizations and story.

I was swept away by the quality of the writing. One reviewer said of the trilogy, “There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic.”

Colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood. It all starts when an abandoned young girl named Amy becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus to create a perfect super soldier. The virus may be the source of the vampire myth. That young girl goes on after many harrowing adventures to eventually fulfill Cronin’s daughter’s wish.

The reviewer quoted above also writes: “The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends.”

20. The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam

This trilogy has been described as a “postcyberpunk thriller”. The three volumes, Nexus, Crux, and Apex were written by their American author (born in Egypt) from 2012-15.

Set in 2040, the hero Kaden Lane is a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, governments and corporations take an interest and begin to threaten.

Nexus

Near the beginning of the trilogy genetically enhanced supersoldiers become vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the same time, sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors.

I was enthralled by the books. The pacing and events are definitely that of a thriller, while the wild possibilities of computer-brain interfaces, and linked human consciousness, are explored in depth.

In Conclusion

This was a sentimental journey back to considering many of these novels, although their worth is much more, I would argue, than pure nostalgia.

I did realize one insight as a result of doing this. The force of thinking and feeling realized in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, that quest for the true and transcendent in our lives, has gone largely dormant in our culture. But I believe that in not a few of the science-fiction novels noted here, that quest reappears to evocatively light up the minds of talented writers. It has been expressed through narratives which include aliens and galactic empires, and stories about dreams and reality and the nature of consciousness.

It is amusing to reflect on the possibility that the best of Emerson and Thoreau lives on through science-fiction.

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Beta Reader Exchange?

July 21, 2022

I’ve finished a second science-fiction novel. This one is set just ahead of us in the middle of this century, which is rather daring given the speed of change.

I like to put characters in science-fictionish environments and explore what might happen with them. This second novel is part of a trilogy I’m calling The Three Eras. The first was set way in the future, in the Third Era. This one is in the First Era, and the next is in the Second. The stories are all in the same universe but each stands alone with only historical connections.

You might think that it would make sense to write them in chronological order, but my mind has worked itself out differently. It may have something to do with ease of writing. The third novel, of the Second Era, promises to be the most difficult. I’m going to have to do a lot of research, which I’ve already started, on such matters as space elevators and genetic manipulation.

But for the just completed novel set in the relatively near future (third draft or so) let me give you the pitch for it:

“What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, like a young combined Einstein and Simone Weil, appeared as a young girl? In the middle of the 21st century, in the midst of societal decay, climate disruption and technological change, a young investigator searches for a brilliant girl who has gone missing. This is a novel about a young man still suffering from the suicidal death of his sister who makes it his mission to rescue a genius girl who wants to save humanity. He must overcome an international crime cartel, local corruption, and social and environmental disruption, to find her and keep her safe.”

Voluntary first readers?

Before I get serious with sending it out to literary agents, I would like a beta-reader or two to give it the once over. For those unfamiliar with the term, a beta-reader is a voluntary first reader who gives the writer their reactions.

I propose that if anyone has their own novel work-in-progress who also needs a beta-reader then we could exchange first chapters or synopses to see if we still want to proceed. My throw-away email for this is: 5cfstkof5osg@opayq.com .

There are beta-reader groups and services available on-line. One I’ve found which I’ve signed up for is the Critters Writers Workshop. It is “home to several on-line critique groups (aka workshops) for professional and professionally aspiring writers, artists, and creators in any endeavor.” It is free (donations welcome) and one pays for being read by reading others and writing critiques. Originally it was set up as a science-fiction and fantasy workshop, but now there are groups for all types of writing.

It is a hangover from the old internet when coming together in creative ways was the prime mover rather than the exciting possibilities of monetization, branding and Meta. The interface is a little old-fashioned, run by a guy who hearkens back to the old days. It can be hard sometimes to find the exact information you’re looking for, but I like the atmosphere of it.

So we’ll see how this goes….

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Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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In Praise Of Westerns

May 8, 2020

Here in the midst of our Covid time, I am on my own, since my wife is stuck in China (fortunately in good health).  This is not necessarily bad, as I am a solitary sort, and thus there are few people coming upon me to randomly scatter virus.

In the evenings, after I work on development of a second novel, I like to watch DVDs from a collection accumulated mostly by happenstance.  I’m watching most of them for at least the second time, and it’s remarkable how much I’ve forgotten about each one!

Lately I’ve focused on westerns for some reason, and they make me think about my own history and that of the genre.  The four movies I’m going to pay attention to here are: Appaloosa (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Little Big Man (1970), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006).

Back in the ’60s

Along with my mother and two younger brothers who loved to play cowboys and Indians, we lived in 1960’s rural north-central British Columbia in a log cabin. We had almost unlimited space to imaginatively populate the trees, creek and hillocks with what we saw on TV and the occasional movie.

After my father died, our little household was more or less adopted by a huge-hearted neighbour family.  The older I get the more unusual I realize their caring was.

maxresdefaultAlmost every Sunday, and often other days during the week, my mother would drive the four of us up the narrow dirt driveway to the neighbour’s house on a rise above the highway.  We were always there to watch Bonanza with the Cartwrights just after we all finished Sunday dinner.

Westerns on TV

Westerns were the most popular genre on TV.  Other shows we boys watched with great enjoyment whenever we could (at our cabin we had no electricity and no TV) included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and especially, for me, Maverick.

Maverick starred James Garner. To see the wiseacre gambler, mildly larcenous with a hidden good heart make his way amidst the dust and guns of the West, often playing off Jack Kelly as his brother, greatly appealed to me.  It was in some ways the same kind of role that Garner would perfect as the reluctant hero in the much later detective drama The Rockford Files.

It reflects changes in American culture that Gunsmoke was the longest running prime-time TV series of all time until it recently lost out to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an urban police drama about disturbing sex crimes.  (Which is very good in my estimation: the acting and the writing are top notch.  But still… my mother would never have let us watch it if it had been around. For that matter, it would have been impossible for that show to even be on TV then.)

At the end I would like to touch again on this contrast.

So here I am with my four movies of interest.  They are all from a later era than the TV glory days, but hearken back in varying degrees.  All of them, it turns out, are about male friendship, even Little Big Man, that older movie of the four.

Appaloosa

indexThis is the most traditional western of the four to me in tone, character, and wonderful cinematography. But the set-up is not so usual: it is that of two itinerant lawmen who travel the west hiring themselves out to pacify lawless towns.

The two men played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have been doing this for 12 years and know each other well.  Appaloosa is the town they come to, and due to a rogue rancher tyrannizing the place, the two are hired by the frightened town fathers.  They promptly and rather dictatorially take over and put things right.

Of course, a woman comes between the two men, interestingly portrayed by Renee Zellwegger, and although the friends eventually resolve that, there are the standard confrontations with the bad guys and final justice done.

Ed Harris also directed the film, and it is amazing to me how he fulfills that role and acts with such focus at the same time.  (This is similar to the equally impressive Tommy Lee Jones taking on both jobs in The Three Burials….)

3:10 to Yuma

yumaThis is more modern in tone, directed by James Mangold, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles.  Appropriately enough, it is a remake of a decent western from more than 50 years ago.

Crowe, who plays a masterful and murderous outlaw leader, is captured. A poor dirt farmer played by Bale, takes on the duty, after everybody else is too scared, to shepherd Crowe to a trailhead and thus off to prison and a death sentence.  Bale needs the reward money.

Crowe is an outlaw with a nihilist philosophy, but he is smart enough to have a philosophy in contrast to the men he leads.  He has become, almost despite himself, a student of human nature.

It is hard for Bale’s character to explain to either himself or his family how he has ended up in such a dangerous enterprise.

The two men slowly discover with some shock that they can make themselves understood to each other.

Peter Fonda is in the mix as a Pinkerton bounty hunter, and along with nasty henchmen from Crowe’s gang, they up the violence quotient.

But in the end, the heart of the story becomes the unlikely respect that forms between the two leads.

Little Big Man

little bigI first saw this in a movie theatre in 1970, and a couple more times over the years since.  Dustin Hoffman is in the title role as the 121-year-old lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.  The movie begins with the aged Hoffman, in amazing make-up, in an old folks home telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

The movie, directed by Arthur Penn (also known for Bonnie and Clyde), shifts from sincere to satirical and back again.  Hoffman relates and the movie shows the lengths he went to for survival as settler, adopted Cheyenne brave, gunfighter, medicine show spieler, cavalry scout, hermit and drunkard.

In its serious aspect, the movie is a meditation on the continuous betrayal of native Indians by an expansionist and merciless white culture.  The massacres shown of Indian villages brings this home.

But where the movie shines for me is the warm portrayal of the Cheyenne chief, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George.  He is the father figure, and the friend, where Hoffman’s character finds his spiritual home.

Towards the end of the movie, General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, arrives with his golden locks and his megalomania.  I’m sorry to hit this note, but he resembles no one so much as Donald Trump.  (The calamitous stupidity demonstrated in this very short video, is entirely emblematic and parallel to Custer’s portrayal here.)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

51RKF1m8EnLThis has become one of my favorite movies, of any genre.  It is authentically a western, although it is set in modern times, in Texas and Mexico.  Hey, it’s got horses, guns, desert, and a laconic hero!  And it has a profound sense of hard bitten decency in the midst of the wasteland of modern life that hearkens to the best of what westerns have to offer.

As noted above, Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this tragic tale, which also ends with redemption of a sort.

The beginning of the movie is non-sequential in places and confusing until you realize the scenes are spiralling toward the tragedy at its core.

Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who rides into Texas on his horse one day and asks for work from a small rancher outside a small town near the border.  Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, takes him on, and they become fast friends.  Estrada tells Jones’ character of his wonderful family and the little village he comes from in Mexico, and makes Jones promise to return his body there if he should die.

Estrada is shot and killed by mistake by an angry and lost young Border Patrolman, played with impressive intensity by Barry Pepper.  Pepper buries him to hide his mistake, but the body is found.  The town’s sheriff has the body relocated to the local cemetery. The sheriff has no sympathy for illegal immigrants and ignores anything that implicates the Border Patrol.

Jones’ character is pushed over the edge by this, and kidnaps Pepper at gunpoint.  This turn of events caught me by surprise.  Jones throws over everything to keep his promise to his friend.  He makes Pepper dig up the moldering body, and the two men and a cadaver take off towards the border and Mexico on horseback.

I have to mention the Texas small town.  It’s like places, I’m sure, all over North America, but the arid southwest highlights the arid emotional life portrayed here.  Everyone seems lost, desperate, alienated, without any centre to their lives, so they indulge in drinking or adultery or pornography or mindless violence.  Both the sheriff and Jones commit adultery with the aging wife of the local cafe owner. Pepper’s too pretty wife gives up on him and leaves.

Meanwhile, on the way to the destination in Mexico, Pepper tries to escape from Jones, but is brought painfully to heel.  Adventures ensue.  They fill the corpse with antifreeze so it doesn’t rot too badly.  They find a lonesome blind old man in the middle of the desert, played by the wonderful Levon Helm (of The Band fame).

Finally, they arrive at where Jones was told he should go by his friend, and finds that most of it was a lie, perhaps to make it seem like the man had a fuller life than he did.  There is no tiny village of the name Jones was given.  The wonderful family doesn’t exist.

Pepper has been a hard ass all the way along, unrepentant yet slowly breaking down from the rigors of the journey.  Jones has been tough on him.  They find a ruined house which Jones decides must be the site of the third burial.  He orders Pepper to apologize to the corpse for what he did, and when Pepper resists fires his gun at him several times, but deliberately misses.  Pepper finally breaks down completely and apologizes fervently for the wrongs he’s committed.  Jones looks on approvingly, and leaves him there, riding off on his horse, leaving Pepper with a few words that capture the moment, and their humanity, roughly: “You’re free to go, son.”  Pepper calls out after him, asking if Jones will be okay.

I’ve spent some words on this because for me the movie captures an existential truth of the human condition: we are alone, but the meaning we create is with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones’ later movie The Homesman, a kind of mid-western about women’s madness and early settlers in Nebraska, also has this feeling of apprehending difficult truth about the human situation.

Reflection

Viewing from Canada the decline of American society in recent years, I’ve formed an opinion about some of what has happened.  Watching movies like these and remembering the many westerns once on TV has reinforced it.

The shift away from westerns reflected the cultural centre of gravity moving from ranches, farms and small towns to the ever expanding large cities with all their opportunities and excesses.  Despite all the modern conveniences though, alienation from the land and from each other is rampant.  When a community of people depend on the land and its fruits, and each other, you cannot, for instance, be caught up in perpetual hateful political discourse.  You have to be neighbours.

The entertainment sought and offered also is part of the cultural environment, of course.

Given that westerns could be silly with their stereotypes of black hats and white hats, bad Injuns and good ones, of solving problems by violence, yet their essence often was that of a kind of morality play.  They modelled men, usually, striving and succeeding through honesty, decency and courage.

Men need that kind of modelling, especially.  Women tend to be more rooted in the everyday necessity of such values.  Men become distracted from them too easily.

I apologize for my sweeping generalizations, yet….

To me the demise of the western in popular culture was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

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Presentation of Self Using Text Generated by “The Generator Blog”

May 1, 2019

I went back to The Generator Blog linked to in one of my posts, Hunting for A Science Fiction Story, to see if it was still there.  It is, but last updated in 2013.  Which is a shame, but the site still has links to many working and amusing textual and imagistic “generators”.

I thought it would be fun and absurdist to make a post out of the site’s output.  I won’t always put the name of each generator, but you’d be able to figure it out if you took a look at the website.

Let us begin:

Artist’s Statement:  My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and life as performance. With influences as diverse as Derrida and John Cage, new synergies are manufactured from both mundane and transcendant narratives.

Ever since I was a pre-adolescent I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of the zeitgeist. What starts out as vision soon becomes finessed into a carnival of temptation, leaving only a sense of failing and the dawn of a new reality.

As shimmering derivatives become clarified through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the outposts of our existence.

*          *          *
A song dedicated to the song writer in all of us:

Soul Wolves

Verse 1:

Game is in your hands.
He led my mother
The ceiling is invisible
Yeah, I’m gonna take you for a feel good meal

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Verse 2:

Acid casualty with a repossessed car
Hairy fairies spinning the golden looms
Reap the reward
Who’s gonna answer

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Bridge:

And I am not a bone
Like a voodoo curse in an old lady’s purse
One by one
The demons just came through the window

Verse 3:

[repeated]
A thousand miles away from home
Dead right
Make notes, burn like broken equipment

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Please, let us go moon some cars.  I like that line.

*          *          *

Anthropomorphic Personification Plot Generator

Truth finds himself stranded in a bird sanctuary in the form of a man. The experience is changing him.

Can he escape before the transformation is irreversible, and will he even want to?

*          *          *

Kung Fu Movie Script – Scene One

SCENE ONE – STUDENT MEETS MASTER

INSIDE MASTER PONG’S ONE-ROOM COTTAGE – EARLY MORNING

Master Pong stands in the center of the room, facing Student. Student stands shyly in the corner near the door.

MASTER
You are the new student. Come closer.

Student walks to master, does a double-take as he notices that master has no elbow.

STUDENT
You cannot see!

MASTER
You think I cannot see.

STUDENT
I cannot imagine living in such darkness.

MASTER
Ah, but fear is the only darkness. Also, you forget, I live in North Vancouver. Now… take your octopus and strike me with it.
Student hesitates.

MASTER
Do as I tell you – strike!
Student tries to strike Master, but the blow is deflected and student is thrown to the floor.

MASTER
Never assume because a man has no elbow that he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Student closes his eyes, pauses with concentration before answering.

STUDENT
I hear English Bay, I hear firecrackers.

MASTER
Do you hear your own nose?

STUDENT
No.

MASTER
Do you hear the balloon which is at your feet?
Student opens his eyes and sees the balloon on the floor.

STUDENT
Old man, how is it that you hear these things?

MASTER
Young man, how is it that you do not?
Student looks pensive.

MASTER
Now, we will commence your battle training. Go to the weapons closet and choose an item.
Student walks to the closet, grabs the cutting board and rejoins master. Master holds a kitchen whisk.

MASTER
Ah ha… you’ve chosen the cutting board. Excellent choice.

They bow and begin to fight. Master easily defeats student several times. Student is thrown to the floor and injures his chin. He rubs it to ease the pain. Master laughs while student has a look of hope.

MASTER
Arise slightly, young frog, and brush the indignity off of your vest.
Student does so.

MASTER
You fought blindly, frog. A geezer nerd could’ve beaten you.

STUDENT
Yes, Master Pong, forgive me.

MASTER
Forgive yourself, you have suffered for it. What is the cause of your anger?

STUDENT
It is anger at Stephen Colbert.

MASTER
Yes, but what is the reason?

STUDENT
For being nasty.

MASTER
Ah. And when did you discover this?

STUDENT
About 1 hour ago when Stephen Colbert and I were attacked by 11 big bullies at Walmart. I was struck first. And Stephen Colbert, out of fear, did nothing to help me.

MASTER
You were only two against 11 larger than yourself. What do you think Stephen Colbert should’ve done?

STUDENT
Fought back and tried to help me.

MASTER
Yes, frog, that would’ve been heroic.

STUDENT
You agree, then, that Stephen Colbert was nasty.

MASTER
The body is nasty when it understands its weakness. The body is remarkable when it understands its strength. The cheetah and the squirrel march together within every man. So to call one man nasty and another remarkable merely serves to indicate the possibilities of their achieving the opposite.

Student looks confused as scene fades to black.

You may now imagine the rest of the movie.

*          *          *

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