Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Foundation’s Edge” by Isaac Asimov

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! 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.

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov

Foundation’s Edge won the Hugo and Locus Award and was nominated for the Nebula Award for best novel when it came out. That’s some great pedigree, especially coming from an author as prolific and influential as Asimov. I loved the early parts of the book in spite of myself. Yes, that’s right, I have a predilection to disliking Asimov which has only increased through my reading about the man himself and his treatment of women (more on that below). The Foundation Trilogy, long hailed as the pillar of science fiction, has managed to bore me three times through. Asimov, in my opinion, is not great at developing characters at all, and tends to focus on whatever pet idea he had in the book. All that said, I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, but found myself really getting into the premise of a mystery within a mystery within a wider, galactic story.

The initial premise(s) of the novel is absolutely fascinating. The two Foundations were in a secret war with each other; one is thought to have been destroyed, while the other comes to dominate humanity. Suspicious about the death of Second Foundation being exaggerated come to the surface, and the only female character written with any effort manages to maneuver a blowhard politician into outing himself as a potential “traitor” and getting pseudo-exiled on a snipe hunt to try to find Earth with an eccentric, obsessive scientist as a cover for actually tracking down Second Foundation. Seriously, that is an awesome premise, and the setup was deftly handled. I was absolutely engrossed.

But then the book kept going. And going. And going. The premise kept getting dragged on and on through permutation after permutation of the same ideas and characters remarking on how this or that aspect of the premise is good or impossible or bad or great or the worst. We get it, Asimov. The events in this novel are A Big Deal. That was understood with the premise itself! Let’s get into the meat of it! But when we do get to the meat of it, Asimov drops the ball, big time.

It is impossible, as the novel wears on, to ignore some significant flaws. Most egregious is Asimov’s treatment of women, which should not, perhaps, be surprising given his notoriously crappy treatment of real-life women (something that surely ought to downplay his legacy). There’s a whole scene in which the male characters debate over whether to go out on the town and hire prostitutes (without using the term), and ridiculously stupid joking about the needs of men regarding sex. It’s as though Asimov never grew past the earliest adolescence regarding both his attitude towards and knowledge of women, and it is extremely grating, especially as the novel goes on and on.

That is the second major problem with the book: it’s about two times too long. The awesome premise mentioned above isn’t enough to bank on throughout a novel that’s this long, but it is effectively what Asimov plays towards. Though he does give the payoff, that payoff is the absurd scenes centered around Gaia, which appears to be a form of escapism for Asimov but only annoyed me as a reader. The third major problem is Asimov’s struggling with the anthropic principle, which is again a major theme in the book. It’s almost as though Asimov attempted to answer this rather deep problem through Foundation’s Edge but ultimately the best he could come up with was “Well we’re here, aren’t we?” and some hand waving and readers are supposed to think that somehow solves the very real difficulties with the anthropic principle that Asimov himself brings up in the novel. It’s a kind of deus ex machina that Asimov tries to use in order to get rid of the Deus. In doing so, however, he only shows how absurd his own position is: a kind of brute fact approach tha doesn’t provide any answer at all. It’s annoyingly simplistic and detracts from the novel

Now that I’ve ranted for that long about the flaws, readers might think I disliked the novel, but I didn’t. It was a good novel, but one that could have been improved immensely by a much heavier hand from an editor. Foundation’s Edge is good, not great, which is a disappointment, because the premise on which it is built could have been a really fantastic adventure story. The characters were compelling enough in the beginning, but got replaced by the typical Asimov cutouts later on. Instead of being an epic novel, it’s a middling mess of hard sci-fi, adventure, sexism, shoulder-shrugging answers to big questions, and a psychadelic acid trip of a planet.

Links

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!

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 Month: “Past Master” by R.A. Lafferty

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! 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.

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, though he was recommended to me time and again. One of the foibles of loving books so much is that you sometimes think you know better than other people do about what you may enjoy. My apologies to all who recommended Lafferty–I should have dived in the first time his name came up!  I was absolutely blown away by Past Master. I wish I’d read it earlier.

This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or how dreams play out in faster-than-light travel, there are so many rabbit trails one could follow in this novel that reading it sometimes felt like work at times. But the work was enjoyable–like the work where you don’t want to stop. You’re loving it, and you’re good at it, and it’s got to be done!

There are whole scenes in this novel that had me re-reading them in order to try to pick up on more strands of meaning. One scene has Thomas More… wait, what? Yes, I forgot to mention that Thomas More–the one who wrote Utopia and was executed for not recognizing the annulment of King Henry’s marriage–is one of the main characters in the book. Let’s step back. The plot has Thomas More get fetched from his own time before his death to help rescue a future Utopia, but the inhabitants of the future Utopia apparently don’t realize that More’s Utopia was more a biting satire in Lafferty’s vision than it was a goal for a future society. Anyway, there’s a scene where Thomas More is confronted by a beautiful woman who tries to seduce him, apparently wanting to seduce a Saint, and More and her get in a lengthy conversation about the meaning of her name, Evita, and whether she is like Eve, the mother of life, or a Lilith-like seductress and wicked person, largely based upon her name. Twists and turns come fast and hard in the conversation, and it is a delight–especially for me as someone who knows a decent amount of church history and has studied Greek/Hebrew (only the basics!). Scenes like that, though, are found throughout the book.

There’s no question that Lafferty is offering the book as his own form of social commentary. Is a utopia with all needs met worth selling souls for? What is the church to become or do in such a society? What might Thomas More think of applying his thought to a real world situation? Mis-applying it? Is Lafferty really just making one extended commentary and pushback on Vatican II, as the introduction to the version I read briefly suggested? These questions warred in my consciousness while I read the book, though they never took away the enjoyment I had throughout, they simply added to it. Lafferty’s prose style is also great. As I said, it’s dense, but it also manages to be lyrical at times and full of wonder throughout.

Past Master is one of those novels that you read and realize it’s going to stick with you for a long time. I am so happy I finally got around to reading it, and I recommend it highly to you, fellow sci-fi/fantasy lovers! Heck, even if you don’t really care about sci-fi/fantasy, it’s a great read and occasional exploration of religious/science themes and more. Go read it!

Links

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!

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.

Reading the Horus Heresy, Book 6: “Descent of Angels” by Michael Scanlon

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.

Descent of Angels by Michael Scanlon

I went into reading Descent of Angels not quite knowing what to expect. In one group I’m in, opinions ranged from saying it was among the worst books in the whole WH40K universe to having it as the favorite book in the Horus Heresy series. Reviews on Goodreads put it just over 3/5, reflecting a generally mixed opinion as well. My own opinion is that the book could have easily been a short story instead of a novel.

In Descent of Angels, we meet Zahariel, a man from Caliban, a planet that is kind of Middle Ages in technology and thought. The book is set decades before the Horus Heresy begins and also introduces the Primarch of the Dark Angels legion. The first half has some background story for Caliban, developing the world somewhat as well as the traditions in which Zahariel is raised. The second half integrates Caliban into the Imperium and sees Zahariel going off to join the Dark Angels and fight for the Emperor.

The problems with the novel mostly fall around the way it is written. It just doesn’t have the same feel as other Warhammer 40K or Horus Heresy novels, in my opinion. There’s action, yes, but it all feels kind of strange and almost alien to the main plot, which is basically a coming-of-age story that unites sci-fi/fantasy worlds together. The whole thing reads more like a Star Wars novel than a Warhammer one, and that threw me off for basically the entirety of the novel. Moreover, there are numerous sections of info-dumps where the reader sifts through tens of pages of information before getting to any additional action or character development. Truly, this could have been presented as a short story telling us about Caliban’s integration into the Imperium, and it would have been much improved.

Descent of Angels is a disappointing work in the series. I’ll be interested to see if it truly becomes important later in the series. For now, I would have to say I’m not planning to re-read it. What did you think of the novel?

Links

Reading the Horus Heresy– Read along with me in the Horus Heresy and see all my reviews of the books.

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!

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.

“How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi

Discussions of racism often get bogged down in disputes over definitions and intent. Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book How to be an Antiracist helps clear some of the fog around racism and antiracism by providing clear definitions as well as clear steps to take to combat racism.

Race, as Kendi defines it, is “a power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially” (35) and racists are those who support racist policies while those who are antiracist support antiracist policies. Kendi’s definitions, as noted elsewhere, are expansive: any idea that there are things better or worse about a racial group is an example of racism, and we can act in either racist or antiracist ways–there is not neutral ground in the in-between.

Kendi then surveys numerous ways that racism and antiracism play out in public and private spheres. These chapters are extremely important because they show the simplicity with which we can identify racism when we cut through the attempts to dance around the topic. Biological racism, for example, is something someone does when they are “expressing the idea that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value” (44). Ideas about bodies can also lead to racism, and someone who is bodily racist is “One who is perceiving certain racialized bodies as more animal-like and violent than others” (69). Kendi’s note of what it means to be antiracist in specific ways is uniquely helpful as it helps readers to instantly identify ways to counteract racist ideas. Regarding bodily racism, for example, the bodily antiracist is “One who is humanizing, deracializing, and individualizing nonviolent and violent behavior” (ibid). Thus, if someone refers to the behavior of a black man as exemplifying how young black men are “thugs” or attributes behavior to someone who is “acting white,” they are acting in ways that are bodily racist (and possibly biologically racist as well).

Racism goes beyond identifying bodily differences and also extends into cultural beliefs: cultural racism is the act of making one culture the standard and then imposing a hierarchy of value based on cultural backgrounds (81). Kendi notes the intense importance of attributing behavior to individuals rather than groups. Making an individual’s behavior determinate that of a group or making individuals responsible for whole racial groups is an example of behavioral racism (92). Kendi notes how color has been used to create inequities between light people and dark people, supported by racist ideas (107ff). Charges that Kendi is operating with some new or recent definition of racism and innovating in ways that are not found historically are dispelled when one looks at his use of sources, reaching back to scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois who already noted the ways in which colorism and similar ideas were deeply integrated into racial discrimination and pushing inequity based on race.

Kendi also does not fall into the trap of ignoring how racism can be based upon any color or perceived difference. Thus, he acknowledges that there is such a thing as Anti-white racism (122-135) and that it is a mistake to say that it is mistaken to claim that a group cannot be racist because they lack power (136ff). Kendi’s consistency on this point immediately undercuts many of the objections people make when discussing racism on a critical level.

Economics itself can be pressed into the service of racist ideas when one racializes the classes or supports policies that they justify by racist ideas based upon class (151). Additionally, racializing spaces and encouraging racial inequity based upon what spaces people are allowed to inhabit or visit continues to be a serious problem. Sexuality and gender can each play into racism as well, and Kendi surveys how they can be used together to create inequalities.

The book is filled with anecdotes, citations of studies, and citations of major historical voices to back up each claim. It’s a fascinating look at how we might work together to combat racism in all of its shifting forms. Perhaps most vitally, though, it also serves as a wake up call to how to identify many of these different forms of racism. How to Be an Antiracist is an incredibly valuable resource that I recommend to readers.

Links

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!

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.

Reading the Horus Heresy, Book 5: “Fulgrim”

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally decided to start reading the “Horus Heresy,” a huge series of novels set in the universe of Warhammer 40,000 (though it is set much earlier than the year 40,000). I thought it would be awesome to blog the series as I go. With more than 50 novels and many, many short stories, there will be a lot of posts in this series (I doubt I’ll get to all the short stories). I’m reading the series in publication order unless otherwise noted. There will be SPOILERS from the books discussed as well as previous books in the series. Please DO NOT SPOIL later books in the series.

Fulgrim

Boom. Boom. Boom! This book was awesome. It has some serious tones of dark fantasy and horror melded into the relentless metal action I have come to expect from the setting.

The plot is a story of the fall of Fulgrim, along with his Remembrancers, into the hands of Slaanesh, the Chaos god of extravagance, lust, and various evils. Fulgrim has tried to make his legions pursue perfection over all other things, and in the novel he comes to a turning point in which, while fighting some Xenos (aliens), he turns to the aliens’ means of self-perfection through genetic modification. In doing so, he corrupts the plans of the Emperor and begins a path from which he seemingly cannot turn, believing the whole time that he is perfecting his Legion.

There are some pretty gross scenes here, though, so fair warning. The violence is really over the top in parts, including sexual violence and the like. Pretty gruesome. A lot of it centers around the fall of the Remembrancers as they experience the corruption of Daemons as well. The elements of horror are really woven into the foreboding sense that I got as a reader observing how the artists and historians included in the party also fell into the clutches of the daemonic. This is a dark sci-fi novel through and through.

What makes Fulgrim great is that it demonstrates how easy a fall from moral and ethical heights is–justified by a pursuit, a dream, a vision, those who should remain most loyal to the Emperor instead continue to fall away and into the worst of corruptions. It’s an excellent entry in the series.

Links

Reading the Horus Heresy– Read along with me in the Horus Heresy and see all my reviews of the books.

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!

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1962

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1962 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

Dark Universe by Daniel F. Galouye (My Winner) Grade: A-
Have you read about Plato’s cave? Okay, now that you’ve searched it and done so if you haven’t we’re on the same page. This book is a science fiction exploration of Plato’s cave. It’s done extremely well, combining elements of nuclear scare/red scare with world building that make a whole culture that lives purely in darkness. It’s fascinating all the way through, with how Galouye thought to even drop common sayings like “I see what you mean” out of the vocabulary of a culture that cannot see. The downside in the book is that the characterization is a little on the lighter end. Overall, a must-read, especially for those philosophically-minded science fiction fans.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner) Grade: B-
Stranger in a Strange Land manages to capture the feeling of ‘alien-ness’ utterly, but stumbles slightly at the end, when Heinlein allows his own time period to take control of the plot too completely. It takes some digesting. It is clear that Heinlein wants to push his own view of the world, and that takes the reader out of engagement with the haunting story, at times.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting, engaging work. One of Heinlein’s better works. Though, like every Heinlein book I’ve read, it loses its luster the more I think about it. Yes, there was too much preaching from Heinlein about sex and drugs. Yes, it was hopelessly enamored with Heinlein’s favorite ideas. No, its characters aren’t three dimensional outside of the main character. It has serious issues all the way through, such that my initial largely favorable thoughts (I initially graded this one an A- on my first read-through) become more and more negative as I think about it. I also dislike it more the more I think about it in context of his overall body of work, though that’s hardly a fair measure. As a single book, standing alone, read in the right mood, this is excellent.

Planet of the Damned aka Sense of Obligation by Harry Harrison Grade: D+
I’ve enjoyed a few Harrison books, but this one was cliche in almost every regard. The characters were utterly predictable. The “surprise” discoveries were projected far in advance. The sexism was blatant, like when it is casually stated that women could not compete with men in a decathlon because women would “never” beat men at chess. It’s campy, but not in an endearing way as can happen. It’s just not a very well-written book in any regard.

The Fisherman aka Time is the Simplest Thing by Clifford Simak Grade: C
Clifford Simak is one of those names that looms large in classic sci-fi, but whose works, in my opinion at least, haven’t aged particularly well. Time is the Simplest Thing finds the protagonist engaged in a rather lengthy road trip basically trying to do… what? Having read the book rather carefully, I’m still not entirely sure why Shep Blaine decides he needs to flee when he encounters an alien that gets inside his mind. Is there some protocol of torturing information out of human hosts? Is there some way the alien is leading him? Kind of maybe. But the way it all plays out is written in a rather ho-hum, just the facts approach that doesn’t engage with the reader. Moreover, there is very little background for any character, making it difficult to really care at all about what’s happening. On the positive side, there is the occasional interesting exploration of themes like power, intelligence, and prejudice. My feelings after reading the book mirror the narrative style: ambivalence.

Second Ending by James White Grade: B-
James White is quickly becoming an author for whom I have a deep appreciation. The thing that makes him stand out, particularly for his time, is his almost total commitment to peaceful or even pacifist type solutions to problems. I have only read this book and the first of his Sector General novels, but I look forward to more. Anyway, Second Ending‘s biggest flaw is that it is too short for the story to really get off the ground. Yes, it is certainly possible for a short work to have a complete feeling to it, but this felt more of an amalgam of ideas than a deep plot. That’s okay, though, because the ideas–while somewhat dated–are interesting. White doesn’t have “red scare” in the traditional sense. Again, it’s all about what we–all of humanity–are doing to ourselves. If we destroy the world, what next? I enjoyed this pithy read, but it left me wanting more. Perhaps it’s time to dive into the next Sector General novel!

Links

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!

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.

Reading the Classics: “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

I have decided to mix in some classics with my constant reading of sci-fi/fantasy, philosophy, theology, and biographies. In order to pick which classics to read, I have largely crowdsourced recommendations of which classic literature they have enjoyed, combining this with lists of major classic works. So yeah, pretty subjective, but we can deal. As I read through the classics, there will be SPOILERS, because I want to actually talk about them. Maybe it will encourage you to read them, or, if you have read them already, you can join in a deeper discussion of these great works. Feel free to recommend your favorites, as well.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I chose Great Expectations next because I have been wanting to re-read it for many years. I read it in High School and was struck very deeply by both the major plot twist in the novel and its conclusion. I remember it being one of those books I clutched to my chest once I’d finished, thrilled by its depth and beauty. But by now, that was about all I remembered of it. I chose to listen to it this time because I wanted to really absorb it slowly.

Slowly, I did absorb it. Dickens is an author I’ve heard lambasted before for drawing out his novels well beyond what they need to be. Writing in an era where novels were published serially at times, he made sure he got paid to write for as long as possible. There are other authors who did the same, of course. Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo (link to my review) serially, and that book is more than 1000 pages in print! But Dumas’s classic doesn’t feel as though every single word was pondered over to add to its length. Great Expectations is much shorter, but still slows at times to an absolute crawl as the verbosity of its prose drags it on. Now, Dickens is a truly skilled artist, so even when you can tell he’s dragging something out, it is still enjoyable to read.

The plot itself is much simpler than I remember. Boy falls in love with girl when they’re young. The girl has been purposely raised to be unkind. He rises above his station unexpectedly. Girl, now a woman, turns him down pretty hard.  Sorrow. Later, they meet and her station seems to have changed. She seems to have feelings now, but it appears to be too late. The end. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but those are the basics. It’s a tough story that, on reflection, seems to have few if any redeeming characters in it. Pip is mostly carried along by the events surrounding him. The convict, Magwitch, who brings him into wealth and “expectations” has only paper thin motivations. Other characters are just about as narrowly made.

With all of that, I still enjoyed the book immensely. Dickens’s prose is fantastic, and he somehow manages to draw you into the story even without very sympathetic characters on the whole. It’s a great book, but perhaps not as great as I thought it was in high school.

Links 

Reading the Classics– Read more posts in this series as I work my way through classic literature.  Let me know what you think of them! (Scroll down for more.)

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!

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.