Monday, September 11, 2006

Book Reviews: Vinge, Clarke, Leguin

A science fiction theme today (which isn't terribly unusual). index.

Vernor Vinge, Tatja Grimm's World (C+)
Back when it was hard to get, I made an effort (a sliding scale, as far as these things go) to get my hands on all of Vernor Vinge's backlist. Grimm's World is his first published novel from 1969, and was republished in 1987 with a new front section as Tatja Grimm's World. Evidently, however, it's been re-released this year, hoping (and succeeding) to make a buck off of people like me.

I'm a big fan of Vinge's later stuff. A Deepness in the Sky is a wonderful science fiction book, with one of the best big-picture men-in-space visions I've encountered, a hell of a neat metafictional trick to tie up the fundamental problems of "first contact" stories, and a respectable job of stringing along plots and characters. One of the things that makes the Deepness world special is that it manages to work around a constraint that is real, but too often faked badly in the genre: in the time it would take to travel in space, entire civilizations would rise and fall. Vinge built a whole world in these margins. Sf is a liberating form because it removes conventional constraints, but better authors see through the ramifications, realize human character only changes so much, and avoid using high technology as a universal kludge.

Tatja Grimm's World is, in ways, a precursor to Vinge's later body of work of honest science fiction. Tatja's world is a resource-poor backwater, half of a binary planet system. There is little metal in its chemistry, and this dearth has stalled population growth and stifled technological progress. Tatja herself is a superhuman savant, and alone has deduced the presence of alien humans. Unfortunately, the alien influence is every bit as badly presented in the novel as I make it sound right here, and it's coupled with a prose style that (trust me on this) screams literary rookie with an engineering background. It's an achingly obvious first novel, but since Tatja Grimm eventually went on to become Pham Nuwen, I forgive him for it.

I do wish to add that the first part, written almost twenty years later, does not exude the amateur feel to anywhere near the same degree. It fails, or at least annoys me, on a different level. They (or "they") say to write what you know, and in this case, what Vinge knew was the science fiction magazine publishing industry. The story is a ride with the fictional publishers, who're not only rich and influential and forward-thinking, but have also been promoted, through their fantasy magazine, to the Church-like guardians of a world's knowledge base. It's complete with precious in-jokes and comes off as bloody conceited.

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (B)
I read the Clarke book for a couple of reasons, partly because I thought it might make a good companion to Tatja Grimm's World, and partly because it's been sitting in the real-soon-now pile next to my bed for a metric eternity or so. I thought the paired reading would work because Rama is a first-contact story of the same sort as Tatja Grimm's in which primitive protagonists reach out (and flail) in an attempt to learn from a more technologically advanced people.

Rama has all the quality character and dialogue of your typical hack Star Trek episode, but that's not really what it's about. Clarke vaguely tacks a story around a great big description of a giant alien starship, which has drifted into solar orbit, and is waking up from its long, cold journey. In the capsule of the giant ship, it's easier to fit a grand vision together. A better plot, set in a more believable universe, with more interesting characters would have only taken away from it (but more interesting prose would have have been nice). As it is, the whole thing floats ably on the unfolding of discovery.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Telling (A-)
[one from the archives]

Not every science fiction author is a clumsy stylist, and not every meeting of cultures, even at different technology levels, has an obviously superior party. Nor is every storytelling conceit tacky. Ursula LeGuin has enjoyed deserved recognition outside from the genre hack community for some forty years.

The Telling is set in LeGuin's Hainish series of stories, loosely associated with her classics, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. The framework of these stories is that the human race is very old, and dispersed among the stars such that communication between societies is difficult and travel to the outskirts is extremely rare. The progenitors would still like to preserve human history, however, and send out observers to watch the technologically younger societies as they develop. In this series, LeGuin plays a number of anthropological what-if games. What if Communism worked? What if we were more in touch with our gender opposites? What if we were closer to history? Instead of writing horrible polemics on how these systems should've worked, LeGuin consciously tinkers with human character and changes (with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety) what prevents us from those goals. And then she looks at how the system doesn't work, even in the ideal setting.

In order to pull that sort of thing off, you have to decent understanding of people in the first place, and LeGuin manages it fine. Having more recognizable human points of view as observers is a good frame on which to hang these sorts of stories.

In The Tellingwe're introduced to a strangely easygoing society infected by a Terran meme of fundamentalism and progress, which seeks to purge the old culture. The old timers are roughly Taoist (so much as I understand the philosophy), living the path, but also unjudgementally seeking to preserve the memory of all paths in a forever unwinding oral history, called the Telling. The Telling passes on practical knowledge and culture and it's the barbarians, we find, that embrace technology and cultural genocide. Unlike the other Hainish stories I've read, LeGuin loses points by posing this society directly against a future Earth's--an extrapolation of a mad fundamentalist society that is overblown, cheap shooting, and not entirely implausible.

The Telling is a storyteller's story about the mystical nature of storytelling. You have to be careful with that level of self-reference (Mr. Vinge), because it can seem tedious in the wrong hands. This telling, however, is mellow, nice, longlingly eloquent, and contains characters I actually care about. And that makes all the difference.


twiffer said...

btw, thanks for informing me of the telling. picked it up and read it this weekend. sure, i would have found it on my own, but i appreciate the tip.

agree on leguin's motivation. she is, under the guise of sf, writing anthropological thought experiments. i'd stick the lathe of heaven in here too, though it's not a hainish story.

the hainish pop up in her short stories too, if you haven't read any of them.

Keifus said...

Thanks Twiff. I drug that up for your benefit/possible interest, basically. I found The Lathe of Heaven ten years ago in a bargain bin, and was my first experience with the writer. It was great. (I found The Telling in the bargain bin too, actually.)


twiffer said...

oh, also forgot to mentino that Rama II has a bit more of a plot/interesting characters/etc.; prose is more fluid too. yet, rendezvous feels a bit more compelling. likely because it is the first contact (book).

as for the telling, didn't lose as many points for me in regards to the terran conflict. because, in the hainish vein, it's a passing moment in history. embracing fundementalist (or any stripe) dogma is a common human reaction to stress. leguin just puts it onto a global scale; one that is quite believable. but also it is in it's death throes, and the chaos after it is more intriguing (and important, i think).

while painting the akans as idyllic on the surface, she does make it clear they are not, nor were. two points i thought were particularly important: first, the idea that humans, in lacking (percieved) instinct, are oddly out of place in the natural world. thus, to fit back in, the world needs to be defined in a way that gives people a place. we don't know what to do, what to be, unless told. this, i feel, accounts for the lack of exclusion of paths, etc. in the telling. secondly, the truth that no matter how hard one works to eliminate or rewrite history, it will persist.

Keifus said...

Maybe less for the juxtaposition, and more for the idea that we Earth folks are among the more militant, angry, impulsive of the human species. Not inappropriate, but...

As for the rest, I plead that it's been two years since I read the book, so some details may have been lost (my original review from taht time was edited). If I recall, not all of the stories in the Telling were necessarily historical, of the didn't-happen-but-still-true variety.

I don't feel a dire need to read Rama II, but may do so if I find it cheap. I thought that Clarke let it end appropriately enough (well, minus the last sentence, that is).


twiffer said...

well, that's through out the hainish stories, really. one of them (i forget which) mentions that terrans were a hainish experiment where they breed colonists with an emerging sentient species (so that's where the neaderthals went!); might go a bit of the way in explaining it. but, humans are no bloodier than parts of hainish history. i think terran nature has to be taken into context within each story. we calm down, eventually.

the stuff regarding dazul was interesting. i think it pops up (similar, at least) elsewhere too.

Keifus said...

I am fairly sure the only other two Hainish stories I've read were the ones mentioned. I believe that The Dispossessed had a passing reference to Earth (an ambassador on the primary world, a bit character who filled in some of the Hainish back story, if I remember), but that's all I'd so far encountered.

Also, regarding your previous comment, yes, the exclusion of paths was a very interesting aspect of it. No human society is non-defective (which is why I like how LeGuin goes about presenting them).

I've forgotten any explicit man/nature dichotomy, I'm afraid, though I can see how it would have been expressed. And I can't for the life of me remember who/what dazul is.