Vintage Sci-Fi: “Son of Man” by Robert Silverberg

Son of Man by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is a favorite of mine, but I have to acknowledge frustrations with his corpus. The Son of Man is a novel on the verge of greatness, though it is marred by some significant flaws.

One of Silverberg’s strengths is making characters whose viewpoints force the reader to consider life from a different–and often uncomfortable–perspective. This novel is replete with examples of that, as Clay, a man from the 20th century, is thrust forward in time billions (??) of years and encounters the future of humanity. The future humans are familiar, yet alien, tantalizing, yet appalling. Questions about the nature of humanity and its future are found in abundance, with very little by way of answers. What is humanity if all its heroes are forgotten? What kind of continuity is there between Clay and these telepathic, self-changing, apparently immortal beings?

Clay lustfully mates in almost every combination possible–something that seems often par for the course in a Silverberg novel. Along the way, questions about sexuality are approached in ways that seem surprisingly blunt. The future humans can change their bodies at will, oscillating between male and female and even in new combinations of the two. Silverberg, through Clay, seems frustratingly stuck in binaries of gender, though the writing and characters themselves almost force him to go beyond and outside of those same binaries. Is the work a kind of trans-friendly reading of future humanity? I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that–but it does ask intriguing questions that seem forward thinking for 1971, when the novel was published. At the same time, Silverberg’s obsession with sex soaks the novel, with Clay’s lust being almost insatiable, while also often appearing along rigid and nearly misogynistic levels of thinking about male and female. Such thinking is challenged by the intersex/sexless/transitive nature of sexuality among the future-humans, but these challenges are only vaguely acknowledged in-text, leaving the reader to draw conclusions that likely go beyond Silverberg’s basic points.

What is man, that you are mindful of him? The novel has a few allusions to the term and theme of “son of man,” though these are barely touched upon and only vaguely thematically related to the content. It is a missed opportunity that this theme wasn’t more fully expressed, as it could have elevated the content.

The plot itself is non-existent. Clay goes into the future and has a bunch of vaguely framed interactions with future humans, most of which end in sexual encounters or thinking about sexual encounters of various styles. The novel is ultimately forced to rely entirely on the strength of those themes discussed above, leaving characterization and plot by the wayside.

Son of Man was an interesting, if sometimes frustrating, read. It showcases some of Silverberg’s best and worst aspects. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Silverberg, but for fans of the author–or people who are interested in New Wave science fiction, it is worth checking out.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Downward to the Earth” by Robert Silverberg

Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg

I’m sitting here, having just finished Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, attempting to figure out how to put into words the experience I’ve had with this book. To be fair, there’s little way in my mind to separate this work from others in his corpus. I read the novel version of Nightwings as I waited for news of my father dying, and it was hugely disturbing and healings by turns as I sat awake through that long night. For me, Downward to the Earth is another astonishingly touching, awful, and hopeful look at the human condition from the pen of a master.

The core of the story is the impact of human colonialism on an alien planet that has two sentient species. The elephantine Nildoror are peaceful herbivores whos intelligence is evident despite having little to show for it by human standards. The predatory Sulidoror have co-existed with the Nildoror since time began, it seems, and their each inhabiting the same world is a central mystery of the novel. Edmund Gunderson is returning to the planet, having been head of the Company’s colonial exploitation of the same. Gunderson seeks… he’s not quite sure what, but his conscience weighs him down.

We learn much of the Nildoror, and Silverberg presents us with numerous conversations in which the Nildoror and Gunderson interact, often with startling questions about what it means to be sentient, whether our treatment of “beasts” is moral, and more. As we continue with the book, we are presented with heartbreaking scenes, such as Gunderson’s confession that he prevented some of the Nildoror from going to “rebirth” due to his pressing them into forced labor. Another beautiful scene involves a different human, Kurtz, dancing in a drug-induced trancelike state with the Nildoror. This scene takes on a somewhat different tone later, as we discover it may have been more sinister than we thought due to its impact on the Nildoror. Indeed, this scene is revealed to be somewhat the work of Gunderson as well, whose role in the corruption and near-devastation of the Nildoror can barely be understated.

Yet the novel is also about forgiveness, healing, and hope. Gunderson undergoes a remarkable transformation in the book, from a salty man defensively aggravating tourists by bragging of his colonialist past to someone who is remarkably hurt by his own actions and seeking forgiveness. I don’t want to spoil much more, but his development as a character is a thing of beauty.

Silverberg’s treatment of women is, again, not good. The only woman who makes any sort of impact on the story seems to be there purely for titillation and as an attempt to inject some more human drama into the plot.

Downward to the Earth is unquestionably a great work of science fiction. It deserves its place in the corpus of any reader. It filled me with both disgust and hope. I loved it. Those who want science fiction to make them think would do quite well to read this book.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2022- Reviews Part 2

Steel Crocodile by D.G. Compton-
The description of this novel is somewhat incongruous with its content. The blurb I saw was something to the effect of: there’s an omniscient supercomputer that can answer any questions, but Matthew Oliver is asking too many questions. I went in expecting a kind of cyberpunk-esque thriller. Steel Crocodile is not that book. No, instead it’s a deep character piece about love between a husband and wife in an oppressive situation. It’s a reflection on the impact of surveillance state on the people therein. It’s a book that asks questions about aging with dignity. It asks questions about God and faith. It seeks to get at what’s right and wrong.
There are a number of cringe-y moments related to gender norms, especially when a competent woman is introduced and comments are made about how her hairstyle suggests her personality. That said, it’s clear Compton was getting at the deeper aspects of psyche and may even have been offering a critique of some of these gender norms in the novel. For example, the way men and women think about each other and the different ways people see the same events was done quite well by Compton at multiple points.
The main plot does deal with that allegedly omniscient supercomputer. Some big reveals center around how people plan to use this computer, and a few of these bring up intriguing questions of faith and God. Those latter questions abound throughout the novel, and as a Christian myself, it was nice to see Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) taken seriously in a sci-fi novel. There are also many moments of concern about a surveillance state and how easily we can simply turn the intrusion of people watching into a status quo.
Overall, Steel Crocodile succeeds far more often that it stumbles. Readers looking for a straightforward sci-fi novel will be disappointed, but those interested in sci-fi that asks big questions and looks into human nature will be delighted.

Jem by Frederik Pohl-
I did not like this book very much. A planet is discovered and humans want to peacefully colonize it as a kind of idyllic vision. Back on Earth, things go south and the new colony turns into a kind of last hope for humanity. On the colony, the alien races there are more (or less, in some ways?) than they appear. Honestly, the last 5% or so of the novel was good–it shows the consequences of even well-intentioned colonialism. Everything else was a slog. The first 80 pages or so seem to be half tribute to Pohl contemporaries, half boring meetings of people talking about or seducing each other as they try to figure out colonizing. The whole thing just ends up feeling extremely boring and even chore-like to read, though the bit of payoff at the end made me less upset about paying the fee to interlibrary loan it.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis-
A highly advanced robot who helps run a decaying New York City wants to die. Meanwhile, a pair of humans stops taking the drugs that keep almost all of the surviving humanity in self-imposed stupors and starts to discover what it really means to be human again. These stories entwine and blossom into a beautiful, haunting story that will stay with me forever. Tevis creates a kind of dystopia that is even more disturbing, in many ways, than some of the more well-known dystopias like 1984 or Brave New World. The reason for this is because humans clearly chose to let themselves cede all of their impulses, desires, and wants to the tending of robots and others. What makes that so disturbing is twofold. One, Tevis doesn’t really explain the how and why it happened. Humans just decided that it was better to just let robots take care of everything else and will themselves into drugged stupors than to continue trying. Two, it’s alarmingly prescient in that humans will very often choose the easier road than one that takes effort and pain.
One poignant scene helps bring this home, as a character is longing after one they fell in love with and realizing that it is actually painful to love and to hope for others. This, of course, leads the reader to wonder whether the character will give in and take drugs (specifically, the ubiquitous soporifics available readily throughout the novel). It’s a different kind of terror from worrying about Big Brother or the bad guys out to get anyone who dissents. Instead, this is a novel in which humans war with their own natures, and have very clearly lost repeatedly. That is a kind of horror and awfulness that is more haunting than even the most oppressive and intrusive government or society.
Much more is going on in this excellent novel. It feels hopeful at times, and hopeless at others. The ending is absolutely spot on for the feel of the whole book. Mockingbird deserves to be held in as much reverence as other deeply self-reflective dystopic works. I highly recommend it to any fan of thoughtful sci-fi.

And Chaos Died by Joanna Russ
A pair of humans crash land on a utopic world in which people live wonderfully alongside nature and have telepathy and seemingly other powers. Meanwhile, Earth is a hot, overpopulated mess. A bare bones plot almost holds the book together in between strange stream-of-consciousness portions that are at least attempts to make readers try to see what telepathy would be like, were it to actually exist. Russ is in command of her prose, but the book overall felt a bit like an overly complex puzzle. This slim volume is a tough read that might reward re-reading more than it does reading it the first time. I need to circle back and give it another go, but for now it was just a bit too much.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Humanoids” by Jack Williamson

Vintage Sci-Fi Month has come and gone, but the fun continues!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

The Humanoids by Jack Williamson

There are few science fiction themes more well-known than that of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, a seemingly foolproof method for controlling AI robots of the future. Asimov, some may think, provided a way to ensure the robotic future would be peaceful. By starting off with laws that prevent harm, whether intentional or not, to humans, Asimov guaranteed that peaceful coexistence would continue in perpetuity.

Williamson, however, took such seemingly harmless rules into logical conclusions. These conclusions, unfortunately for humanity, are chilling. What if robots took it seriously when they were programmed to, say, prevent harm from coming to humans? What if they determined it were prevention of harm to stop us from doing dangerous things like skydiving or driving? What about smoking? What if, even worse, unhappiness were determined to be harmful? In The Humanoids, these scenarios and more play out. Humans are put into drugged stupors by the robot overlords who, of course, are doing it all for our own good.

Williamson deftly presents the logical conclusions of robotics gone wrong to the extent that it should lead readers to wonder about the possibility of actually using AIs. How do we develop such intelligence and give it inputs that will not drive it into madness?

There are, of course, humans working to stop the robot overlords. Other humans acquiesce to the robots, giving in to simply letting them do what they want to protect humans. For this, some get special privileges. The humans who are resisting include a bit of Williamson exploring the scientific possibility of teleportation.

I’m not going to spoil how all of this ends, but I will say I was satisfied with the conclusion of the book.

The Humanoids is a surprisingly chilling take on good intentions gone wrong. Although it is simplistic at times in its characterization, the ideas in it are enough to keep readers interested throughout. I found it a refreshing read.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2022- Reviews Part 1

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is well underway, and I wanted to take a break to survey the books I’ve read to this point and offer some reviews as we go.

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg
A science fantasy epic follows the story of Valentine, a man who’s memories have been repressed as he finds himself in a major city with a pile of coins but little knowledge of what to do. He becomes a juggler with a traveling party of humans and aliens for lack of anything better to do. As the novel goes on, layers of this fantastical world are peeled away and readers are swept into the adventure of Valentine as he rediscovers himself and his place on Majipoor. I used the terminology “swept” on purpose, because this is a novel that, if you’ll allow it, will take you up and carry you on an adventure across the massive planet. There are parts where the plot could drag, such as the lengthy descriptions of the juggling. However, if one lets oneself truly dive into those parts and see the flow, the rhythm, and the beat for what they’re intended to be, it’s enthralling. A slow burn read that builds on itself over its lengthy stay, I believe readers will largely get out of it the amount of emersion they’re willing to allow.

Dr. Bloodmoney, or, How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick-
acters go on a mind-bending journey and come out wrecked on the other end. It’s one of what I’ve identified as 3 types of books Dick writes. The first, and possibly most iterative strand is his “drugs are the answer” set of books. These became tedious to me after the first couple. The second strand is his “mind-bending don’t trust anything in the narrative” strand. It’s definitely the most enjoyable of the types of novel I’ve read from him, and includes the few I’ve enjoyed most. This one falls largely in this second category. The third category is the “I’m making up a pseudo theology in a (likely) drug-induced stream of consciousness with a bare bones plot threaded around it.” Dr. Bloodmoney is a fine enough read, but it takes quite a bit of work to get to the meat of it. There is so much going on that it becomes difficult to navigate after a while and turns into a bit of a chore to read.

Empire State by Samuel R. Delany
I have had a truly difficult time thinking what to say about this complex, puzzling read. Is it irrefutable proof that Delany is a master? Or is it incomprehensible? I’m not sure. I had fits of stops and starts with it, and I re-read several sections a few times. The core story is just an alien who crash lands and wants to be taken somewhere else by a simpler alien on the planet it crashed upon. There is so little information about some of the most important aspects of the plot that it becomes both baffling and frustrating at times. What is this information that is so important to take elsewhere? What about the enslaved aliens, what will happen to them? Why is the story a (seeming) loop? What’s going on with this aliens? None of the questions are really answered, either. The short novel (or novella, depending who you ask) is by turns fascinating and frustrating. I can’t decide if it’s a masterwork or a mess.

Half Past Human by T.J. Bass
pretty well within the current stream of dystopic fiction, though the flavor is much more in the vein of 1970s science fiction. Bass weaves in so many different strands that it is surprising he still takes a cohesive story. From what I understand, it’s a mashup of a couple novellas. At times, you can tell, but the larger narrative is interesting enough to carry the story through occasional disparate parts. Somehow Bass takes one of the classic sci-fi trope-like stories of having people wander around on an alien-seeming planet (which is Earth, in this case), and jams it together with a techno-advanced but weirdly backwards dystopic society narrative, then lumps together a few more ideas and then makes it all work. The more I reflect on it, the better I think it is. A forgotten classic.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire” by Michael Bishop

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is here!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire by Michael Bishop

[Publication note: I am writing now of the original version of the book, which is the one I received through interlibrary loan. Apparently the edition available through e-book now is not that version but rather a total re-write Bishop created in 1980. I haven’t read the re-write yet, but I understand that it is quite different.]

I was astonished by this book. It is surprising and deep on so many levels that it makes it one of the most impressive science fiction efforts I’ve ever read. And it was a debut novel? Incredible. Bishop is in total control of the written word here, and it reads like the work of an established master.

The core plot of the novel seems simple: a pair of human brothers join a pair of aliens to try to earn riches by dissolving a conflict on another alien world (different aliens from the pair traveling with the brothers). The concept of pairing runs strong in the narrative (see the excellent review at Sci-Fi Ruminations for even more on this theme), but is perhaps only the most overt of the many layers found throughout the novel. At multiple points in the book, readers encounter stories-within-stories, as characters tell other stories to various characters. These stories are intricately woven into the meaning of the main plot itself, to the point where it becomes a Gordian-like knot of concepts, ideas, and stories.

The plot itself also becomes increasingly complex, as well. Peter and Gunnar, the human brothers, diverge in surprising ways. At the beginning, it is clear our protagonist, Gunnar, looks up to Peter immensely, but as he discovers revelations about his brother’s true character, he has to re-write his own internal narrative of relationships. The aliens’ conflict, between the allegedly progressive and forward-thinking Tropeans and the “backwards/religious” Ouemartsee, becomes increasingly tantalizing as we see the depths of ritual and how it can define society. In a way, the interactions between the Tropeans and the brothers or even the brothers’ pair of alien allies all becomes a large comedy of manners with the necessities of ritual and behavior taking on larger meaning in light of all that’s happening.

As we are confronted with the alien and baffling rituals of the planet of Trope, readers begin to realize that the concepts of ritual, behavior, and conflict that emerge there are remarkably similar to our own. Perhaps, in many ways, they are mirrors for our own uncertainties, conflicts, and even wickedness and beauty.

The question of the ritual in the novel, in which the Ouemartsee maintain the mythic belief in higher meaning behind it while the larger group of Tropeans rejects the same while keeping all the trappings of ritual, is fascinating. If we reject the meaning or truth of religious belief, but maintain the rituals, what can they mean? Does turning the ritual into merely symbolic deprive it of all meaning? Can a society with a “scientific” worldview have deeper meaning by creating its own rituals? Bishop confronts these questions and even offers answers to some of them which are surprising and thought-provoking.

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire is an anthropology of aliens, but also a true anthropology of humanity. It asks us what makes us human, and what might be inhuman. Moreover, it shows the importance of ritual even to those who have rejected the mythic meaning that infuses the ritual with objectivity. It’s a stunning work.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Radix” by A. A. Attanasio

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is here!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

Radix by A.A. Attanasio

I’ve been grabbed, shaken, run over, wrung out, and lifted up by Radix. Attanasio’s masterpiece is a breathless piece of science fiction that is at once shackled to its own time period while also transcending the time in which it was written and perhaps even ideas and concepts of humanity and science fiction itself. I hate when reviews are just a bunch of superlatives and concepts, but these are my initial thoughts on this remarkable book.

Okay, taking a step back, it’s surprisingly simple to offer an introduction to Radix. Published in 1981, its initial scenes read very much like something out of Blade Runner’s world. It’s a somewhat dark, gritty urban landscape in which our main character, Sumner Kagan, scrapes a living by with crime and hate. I thought I saw where this was going, sensing shades of a similar story to Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside. Like that fantastic novel, Attanasio sets up a kind of coming-of-age that’s less a coming-of-age story as it is a revelatory journey. But the similarities end there as Sumner goes through stark landscapes one after another, ultimately coming to an awareness of self that transcends reality as we know it. Helped along by encounters with transhumans and AIs, whether for good or ill, Sumner turns into an ever more remarkable man from the hate-wracked boy we encounter at the earliest stages of the novel.

The story of Sumner is unrealistic at times and maybe even comically overdone occasionally. But Attanasio’s style and genuineness makes every page worth turning even as one rolls eyes at the occasional blunder. The slew of characters that show up throughout the novel each of their own quirks. The number of locations in the novel isn’t huge, but each feels fully fleshed out and somehow both eerily familiar and utterly alien. Readers need to have a strong willingness to suspend disbelief, but the novel just keeps providing reasons to give it the benefit of the doubt at every turn. And the payoff towards the end is huge.

The best science fiction, in my opinion, makes readers think about themselves and our world in new and unexpected ways. Radix demands that on almost every level. Certainly, by the end of the novel, our views of the world are challenged and even shaped along with Sumner’s. Attanasio’s blog reveals a deep interest in global spiritual practices and, particularly, storytelling as a way to discover the self. There’s no doubt in this reader’s mind that Radix was a journey of self-discovery for the author as much as it was for the character Sumner. Moreover, Attanasio calls and challenges readers to embark upon their own journeys. Read this book.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dying Inside” by Robert Silverberg

Not the original cover, but I picked it because… what is it trying to say?

Vintage Sci-Fi Month has come and gone, but the fun continues!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Considered Silverberg’s masterwork by many, I initially read this book at the beginning of my attempt to appreciate older science fiction and this is definitely not the book I would recommend to try to sell someone on vintage sci-fi. It’s dense. The prose is awkward at times. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles that at lot of people tend to expect when they hear “science fiction.” My first read of this was a disaster. I didn’t catch any of its themes. I didn’t really understand it at all. In my review of it then, I wrote that I didn’t get how some people would put it in their top science fiction novels of all time.

Since then, I’ve read the book another time and listened to it (which does count as reading) another time. What I missed the first time and only picked up on a bit the second time is that the novel isn’t about some guy who has telepathy but is losing it. I mean, it is about that, but there’s a much broader idea happening behind the scenes. It is, at its core, a novel about loss. That’s a simple way to put it, but it is.

David Selig is not a very likable guy. His family doesn’t seem to like him. Nobody really seems to like him. You as a reader may not like him. But it becomes impossible not to empathize with him once one thinks about his loss of telepathy as any kind of loss we all experience as we age. Whether its the loss of a parent, of young love, of a pet, a friend; apply these notions to who Selig lives his life in this novel and it will shift your entire perspective on the force of the plot. Selig copes in many ways, some of which are destructive, and some of which offer hope. And you, along with him, can experience his journey of loss and self-discovery. It’s beautiful, and it’s evocative. 

Even on my first reading of this novel, it bothered me. Something about it wriggled under my skin and wouldn’t let go. But I didn’t get it. Now, I think I finally do. Having experienced a significant loss within the year myself, re-reading this was helpful, as it made me think about my loss and how I’ve coped (and not) with it. Dying inside–it’s what we’re all doing at points in our life. Silverberg captures that through his somewhat unsympathetic character, forcing you as a reader to get in his shoes and think about how you’ve dealt with loss. 

Dying Inside truly does deserve its place as among the best science fiction novels of all time. It’s not what you might expect on hearing the term “science fiction,” but it does what the best sci-fi does: it makes you think about the human condition in deeper ways than you’ve done before.

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Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

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SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dreamsnake” by Vonda N. McIntyre

Not the original cover, but the one I read and the one that will forever define the novel to me.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

I read Dreamsnake as a member of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads. It was selected in August 2020, and I had a difficult time tracking it down. It surprised me, because it was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, but apparently was out of print and only available in ebook format on sites that I hadn’t used before. Finally, I managed to track a copy down through an interlibrary loan right as Amazon put the book up free for subscribers on Audible! I promptly dove into the audiobook. 

I started reading Dreamsnake without any prior knowledge of the plot or even the premise. My impression of the possibilities were defined by the cover I put on this post-a woman riding a weird looking horse on the cover of a science fiction novel. Then, I began listening to the book and discovered a world eerily familiar to our own. McIntyre’s prose was lyrical at times and haunting all the way through. The book follows Snake, a woman who heals with the use of snakes and, we discover later, through medical technology. Her Dreamsnake died in a tragic turn during one of her healings, and she is trying to find a new one. The world is apparently post-apocalyptic, as we go past a nuclear crater that causes radiation poisoning, and there is a kind of mythos built up through the novel about a city where higher technology exists. Snake, as a healer, rides the line between the pastoral, subsistence-living settlements throughout the region and the apparent affluence and easy living of the city. 

What makes Dreamsnake most remarkable is its exploration of themes that are much less common in science fiction. For example, an extended scene shows Snake interacting with a young man, Gabriel, who has issues with controlling his sexual functioning. It’s not impotence–it’s that he apparently cannot control whether he is fertile or not–a skill that has been developed in the future. This leads to a rather lengthy scene discussing sexual mores as well as the young man’s difficulties. It’s a surprisingly tender scene in the middle of a science fiction novel, and all the more surprising because it discusses fertility issues  on the side of the man. I have never run into such a discussion in a science fiction novel, and certainly rarely in fiction more generally. Snake recommends that Gabriel go seek a better teacher for his biocontrol, which gives a way out that was somewhat unexpected. The poignancy of this scene and its exploration of a topic that is almost untouched in science fiction is reason enough to read the novel.

In the same town in which Gabriel resides, we encounter Melissa, a 12-year-old girl who was badly burned in a fire. She is a prodigy with horses but the man who runs the stable won’t let her out, claiming it’s due to her deformity. But in reality, he has her trapped in a prison of child labor and sexual exploitation. It’s nothing explicit, but the horror of the situation is palpable. Snake uses her position to rescue Melissa from the awful situation, which in and of itself is a great story. But McIntyre doesn’t leave it there. Snake then directs Melissa on where to go next, but Melissa has other ideas. She insists on going with Snake, and the child and adult have a genuine conversation in which they each give their reasoning for their choices. Snake agrees on Melissa’s reasoning and allows her to come with on her journey. McIntyre here shows an enormous amount of self-determination given to a child. It allows Melissa agency when before there was so little available for her. It’s such an important theme and one about which parents and adults in general ought to take note. Children have agency, and the more we allow them to exercise that–and get in reasoned discussions with adults to allow them to determine a course of action–the better adults they can grow into. 

This also ties into the broader theme of a powerfully feminist vision of the world we get from McIntyre in this novel. It’s not only Snake whom we see exercising autonomy and being a genuine person rather than a trope. No, we also see that it is a girl–a child of 12 years–who gets autonomy of her own. Science fiction so often uses children as prodigies with either near- or actual-divine power. The field is full of books featuring child geniuses or children with wisdom beyond their years. The alternative is usually children as props for the main characters. Here, though, Melissa is a child with no small amount of trauma who still gets to voice her concerns and get listened to by an adult woman, who in fact changes her mind based on what the child expresses. It’s such a powerful moment that even writing about it after the fact has me wanting to cheer. There are several women in this book across a range of ages who are each given their chance to shine. 

The city hides a secret, though, and as readers we never get to explore it much. We’re limited to the viewpoint of Snake, who is roundly turned away from the city when she tries to enter to find a new Dreamsnake. Here we discover much more about the Dreamsnake, which apparently was developed with offworld technology. We experience only hints of this offworld society. In fact, we don’t even know enough to truly call it a society. There are just people–humans or otherwise–who live offworld and apparently have higher technology that the city relies upon. But the people of the city, Snake surmises, are hugely inbred and in need of genetic diversity to survive. In the book, we never know what happens with the city, nor do we learn more about the offworlders. There is no sequel. It seems intentional, though. McIntyre is essentially putting a limit on our knowledge, tantalizing us with glimpses of this post-apocalyptic wasteland while keeping us intimately tied to Snake and, later, glimpses from Arevin, a man who is trying to find Snake. 

The perspective, hints of a broader world, and plot all make the book read powerfully. It’s got plenty of social commentary, as seen above, but it’s also just a great work of science fiction. There’s genetic engineering, discoveries of technology, scientific endeavor, and gritty adventure. Dreamsnake is a wonderful novel, and one that I’m sure to read time and again. I adored it. 

Links 

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

I initially loved this book. The opening was awesome. There’s a large family with land in a remote part of Virginia who comes together to try to figure out what to do about all the signs of coming global apocalypse–global warming; depopulation; plague; etc. Because of this, I thought it was going to be this epic story of a family struggling to meet the coming collapse of civilization in some kind of pastoral setting.

But then, a sharp turn was taken, and the book jumps ahead a few times as we see the real story is about what happens to the clones that same family had set up to try to solve problems of depopulation in a post-apocalyptic setting. And I have to say… I was a bit disappointed. The initial characters were really just foils for the personality of the later clones, and I felt almost betrayed by the shift in premise.  But then, Wilhelm sucked me back in again with her characters and the ideas present in the book.

We have a lot of big ideas in this novel, as it concerns cloning, humanity in a post-apocalyptic future, and how a new human society with different foundations could emerge. But these ideas are in some ways overshadowed by the pastoral setting Wilhelm opts for. Like Clifford Simak, Wilhelm seems to integrate a call within the structure of the novel. That call is one which urges humans into the wild, to learn about nature, and to, perhaps, learn about humanity itself. Thus, as readers, we are treated to a number of scenes set in the forests around Virginia as the clones learn to navigate the woods while a “natural” child, Mark, teaches them what he’s learned about tracking. But these scenes made me as a reader feel like I was back in the Boy Scouts, being forced to learn the difference between a flathead and phillips screwdriver. It may be exciting for some, but I was bored out of my mind. And that’s how I felt at times while reading/listening to this book.

Going along with all of this is a kind of structure of the society, as the clones become almost psychically attached to one another. There’s no significant explanation of this, nor of how it apparently reverts to “normal” humanity in one of the main characters at one point in the novel. But the dynamics of the clone society are interesting, even as they very clearly reflect some of the society of 1970s America in which they were written. For example, the nature of sexual intimacy started by an act of putting a decorated–often floral–bracelet on one’s desired mate. It’s about as obvious a flower child metaphor as can be found. I suspect one’s mileage will vary quite a bit on this novel, depending on their tastes and even mood at the time they read it. 

I still am not entirely sure how I feel about Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. It’s by turns haunting, exhilarating, and sometimes dull. It clearly has me thinking long after the fact, though, and that’s what excites me the most about science fiction. 

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.