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.