Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Stochastic Man” by Robert Silverberg

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back! January is here! After great response to my posts during last January and beyond, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. 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 Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

I found this a fascinating take on a time travel novel. Okay, it’s not actually a time travel novel, but it addresses quite directly some of the central questions that time travel is often associated with. The plot’s main workings are also very similar to what one might expect in a time travel novel. The story centers around Lew Nichols, who uses statistics to very effectively predict the future in broad terms. Later, he meets Martin Carvajal, who can actually see portions of the future–his own–but is quite lackadaisical about it. Nichols enlists Carvajal to help him win the Presidency for his chosen candidate, Quinn. The way it works is part of the similarity to time travel as well. Carvajal can see the future, but Nichols can only see the present and predict trends in the future. So Nichols, in his present, tells Carvajal things that are essential for Quinn to have done in order to bring about his election. Carvajal cannot see whether Quinn wins because he can’t see past his own death, which is apparently coming before Quinn gets elected (or not). But Nichols can use his statistical projection to estimate the long term impact of some of the actions. Carvajal then dutifully reports what future Nichols reported to him in their shared (future) present to the (real) present Nichols. Nichols then relays the information to Quinn and the team they’ve built to elect him.

As the two work together, questions of the unchanging nature of the future abound. Is Carvajal right in that they can’t change the future? His feelings about this means he never even attempts to do so, and one is left at the end of the book wondering whether Carvajal could have been manipulating events in his own way the whole time. Is Nichols ushering in a horrible future where his chosen candidate becomes a dictator? He’s predicted some of the outcomes of this and even sees them at the end of the novel when he discovers his own capacity for seeing the future. Are they, together, bringing about the future rather than predicting or seeing it? These questions are asked around a central pillar that is so subtle it might almost be missed: what would it be like to have time travel or foresight only to know that nothing can possibly be changed? It’s a question that looms large in works on time travel, but Silverberg’s spin by playing the question out in a much different way, by having a hyper-focused scale instead of expanding it out over major events in a timeline. Along with this, he addresses it in the unexpected way of having it not be true time travel involved but rather future prediction and statistical projection. This makes it a fascinating way to play ask the question, and of course Silverberg leaves readers with it as an open ended question, ready to debate on their own.

There are a few problems for this reader in the content of the novel. Silverberg’s major strengths of tight plotting and fascinating character pieces are there, but there are really only two characters that are anything more than foils for plot elements. Other than Nichols and Carvajal, there is very little interaction between characters beyond simply reporting what they are to do and a few arguments over the strangeness of some of Nichols’s advice to Quinn. No women are given any significant role. Nichol’s wife is primarily used to show some sex dynamics that are very 70s (shifting marriage-like relationships for the sake of sex, so far as I can tell). There’s a definite sense of her being the “exotic” woman because she’s non-white, which smacks of some misogyny or at least being quite creepy. She’s also used to introduce a kind of pseudo religious element into the book with a play on some Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure what it would have read like during the 70s, but now it feels much more dated and possibly even colonial in its treatment of the rise of an Eastern-inspired religion.

Looking back over most of the review, it’s easy for me to tell that it was difficult for me to convey just how compelling the central questions in the novel were. The Nichols-Carvajal interactions had me constantly asking myself questions about whether Carvajal was manipulating Nichols, why Nichols didn’t try at least once to change something, whether Silverberg was intentionally trying to say the future is fixed, or whether it was the opposite, and many, many more. The Stochastic Man the kind of science fiction that absolutely forces readers to think a mile a minute, and will leave them thinking about it long after reading the book.

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.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Year of the Quiet Sun” by Wilson Tucker

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. 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.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

I like lists, so I’ve been reading through all the Hugo Award winners and nominees from the beginning. This brought me to The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, an author whose work I’ve not read before. It’s about time travel. Time travel is difficult to do well, in my opinion. I’ve even written a piece on the problems I see in most time travel-related fiction. Basically, they tend to fall into the error of being historical fiction with some sci-fi trappings or going down the endless whirlpool of time travel paradoxes. Tucker completely avoids the first possible error and only touches the second. There will be SPOILERS in my discussion.

Basically, The Year of the Quiet Sun is a bleak story of the future. But there is much more going on in this pithy novel than that. Brian Chaney, a biblical scholar and demographer, is enlisted by Kathryn van Hise to go to the future in order to test a time travel machine. Chaney caused much controversy already in his publication of a midrash that predates the New Testament by a couple hundred years that appears to be the basis for the book of Revelation. That was a mistake. Now hated basically worldwide, he just wants a quiet life away from the public eye. Chaney and others are sent to see what the next election will foretell the current President. Such an act is so perfectly cynical in its political lack of finesse that it plays even better today than it ought. After all, who couldn’t see our current leadership using such a fantastic tool for such a short-sighted goal? 

Anyway, they find that the President did get re-elected while also viciously crushing a coup attempt. But when the characters go forward in time even farther, they discover apocalyptic war and societal breakdown, resulting in the death of one character and Chaney finding the base from which he’s traveled in disrepair. When he speaks with Kathryn, he notes all the horrible events and how the time travel project itself essentially presaged them. He asks how he gets the information back in time to prevent the awful future he now faces, and Kathryn points out that because the nuclear reactor is burned out, he cannot return. And here we find that Chaney is, in fact, a black man and due to various ways the wars played out, he is distrusted completely due to the color of his skin. Kathryn, we find, is the only one who won’t be terrified of him purely based on his race. And thus big reveal, coupled with his own plight, is where we readers are left, contemplating the horror of the whole scenario. 

The book isn’t flawless. It suffers from no small amount of misogyny. Women are mostly judged on their looks, and the word “cad” is used in a teasing light. Serial sexual harassment is funny, right? Wrong. Thankfully, this doesn’t become an overwhelming part of the narrative, though Kathryn never rises much above being a foil for Brian’s–and other characters’–fantasies. The *short) length and pacing of the novel are limiting factors. Leaving me wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the slow burn at the beginning of the book sparks and explodes into the climactic scenes so swiftly that I wish Tucker had developed the actual time traveling scenes more fully. The final plot twists came in a storm that had me flipping back several pages to see if I’d missed something.

The edition I purchased of the book includes an introduction to the work which features a lengthy quote from Tucker about the novel in which he states that others have found themes in the book he didn’t intend to include. He doesn’t discourage this, but instead rather modestly basks in the wonder of having created something people read and enjoy so much. It’s a neat moment, but having read the theme that he specifically talks about–water as a recurring event that cleanses throughout the book–I can’t help but see it as a major theme of the book! This, despite Tucker denying it! But that’s what makes this book so good, in my opinion. Something that makes it last. It is completely full to the gills of these themes. What exactly is meant by the Qumran Midrash–somewhat erroneously taken as a fictional account rather than commentary–in the book? The parallels with Revelation are telling, and the lake of fire being paralleled by the literal lake of radioactive fire that was Lake Michigan’s future is also spot on. Is the finding of an ancient text disproof of Christianity? Tucker doesn’t push that narrative and in fact seems to be urging more care given to reading ancient texts and, interestingly, texts about ancient texts. 

Then, the final twist: having Chaney revealed as a black man was surprising in many ways. First: it confronts readers about their assumptions. Yes, I assumed he was white because the book was written in the 70s as sci-fi. More to the point, I assumed he was white because I always assume main characters are like me. Intentional or not, this made me think about implicit bias and racism that can occur–something I’m clearly capable of being guilty of as much as anyone else. Second: the plot twist forces readers in to the uncomfortable position of thinking about their own racial fears. Third: it twists itself into circles because the black man is feared–exactly what is being confronted in America today and certainly no less so in the 70s when the book was written. It’s an ingenius twist that isn’t quite given enough time in the plot to stew and simmer. But that doesn’t take away its power. In fact, it may amplify it. The twist leaves readers with it as one of the final impressions in the novel and makes us think about it, discomfort and all.

The Year of the Quiet Sun is a somber, subtle read. It requires attention to details and searching for meaning. Tucker filled this book to the brim and overflowing with themes–intentional or not–that demand reading and re-reading and careful reflection. For this, I would consider it a masterpiece-level work. It calls for reflection. Read the book, please! Go! Do so! And do it with an open mind, ready to reflect. This isn’t a “fun read,” but it’s a great one.

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!

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1958

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.

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Winner/My Winner [default])- Grade: A-
Leiber’s idea here is super awesome. Two factions are sending time traveling armies throughout, er, time to battle it out every-when. That’s the bare bones of the idea, and I have to say I thought it was completely awesome. “You don’t know about the Change War, but it’s influencing your lives all the time and maybe you’ve had hints of it without realizing” (chapter 1). So this Change War is going on all around you and I. We may not know it, but perhaps that firefighter who saved a child in a burning building was really one of the Spiders coming back through time to ensure the child survived–or perhaps the arsonist was a Snake sent back to ensure the child didn’t live. Nevertheless, in the here and now, all we know is what we know. It’s a startlingly all-inclusive concept that doesn’t happen often even in speculative fiction. It makes everything new in a way that can influence how you look at happenings. It’s like the “glitch in the Matrix”–whenever I have deja vu I always think about it. But a great concept does not a classic make. Leiber has a strong plot to go along with the concept, though some of the characters fall a bit flat and the dialogue is stilted at times. I truly wish there were many, many more books following this idea, because it made time travel relevant and interesting.

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.

Time Travel in Science Fiction

Now that I’ve read an enormous amount of sci-fi I think it’s safe to say my least favorite sub-genre is time travel.

There are, of course, great time travel novels (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example), but in general I think the idea is overdone and the novels that use it don’t show a ton of variety in them. In many cases if they go to the future they may as well have just written a sci-fi novel about that future. If they go to the past they may as well have written historical fiction. The problem is in very few of them is there any particular reason for the story to be science fiction.

I think the way to do it is to establish the character(s) who is traveling and give them a reason for being interesting and important in whatever temporal situation they are placed within. That’s what Doomsday Book did right, though even Doomsday Book had the problem of not having the “present” time being very compelling or interesting. It’s not done enough. Too often, time travel books have fairly flat main characters who serve almost entirely as a vehicle to get the reader to whatever time and place the author desires.

Just as important, there must be interesting characters in whatever time the travelers get to. Too often in time travel books, the characters in the future or past are little more than vehicles for showing how strange or different that time period/place is. That’s not enough.

Another difficulty with time travel books is that they often feel more like gimmicks than like serious science fiction. That is okay in some cases–Callahan’s Crosstime Salloon, for example, is a quite fun romp that doesn’t take the time-travel aspect at all seriously–but in others it makes the whole thing seem contrived. On the opposite end of the spectrum from turning the time travel into a gimmick is making the time travel itself, and its mechanics, the center of the work and the primary driving factor. That gets old pretty fast. There are only so many times and ways I can deal with reading about possible paradoxes of time travel and whether they make time travel impossible and for the sake of this novel this is why it really is possible after all… etc. I really don’t like pointing to this one because it was clearly such a labor of love, but Stephen Baxter’s Time Ships gets caught up in this big time. It’s a rather fun tribute to H.G. Wells’ time travel novel contained in a massive tome of scientific and philosophical contemplation on quantum theory and the like.

I end my extended rant by once again affirming that there are time travel novels I enjoy, but overall the sub-genre has too little going on in it to make me enjoy it consistently.

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.