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: “Dragonflight” by Anne McAffrey

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.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Do you remember those days before you could easily look up which books came first in a series online? You would be browsing the stacks at a library, grab an interesting looking book, and take it home, only to discover that it is, in fact, book 5 in a lengthy series (or perhaps worse, book 2 in a trilogy!). You bring the book back, and discover the library doesn’t have the other books, so you forget about it. That’s what happened to me with the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I saw one of the books at a local library many years ago and then returned it because I couldn’t get a handle on any aspect of it, given that I’d picked up in the middle of the series (and not at one of the entry points). 

More recently, my mother-in-law, who is another speculative fiction enthusiast, recommended strongly that I try the books out and even bought me an omnibus edition of the first three. I dove in, and was hooked. But I wasn’t completely in the right place to fully understand or grasp the depth of the world McCaffrey made. More recently, I started a re-read of the series (I’d read the first 9 or so before), this time on audiobook. I was blown away by the immense scope of McCaffrey’s world, even from the first book, Dragonflight.

Dragonflight introduces us to Pern, a world which faces a threat from “Thread,” a kind of mindless spore creature that destroys almost anything it touches, burrowing, eating, consuming. Every 250 years or so, these “Threads” would shoot from another planet onto Pern, its neighboring world. To combat it, the people of Pern developed a relationship with local creatures which they called dragons after the creatures of lore. The dragons could burn the Thread from the sky before it threatened the planet, but only if they were employed properly. In Dragonflight, the threat seems more remote because the irregular orbit of the neighboring world has meant several turns (approaches of the other planet) haven’t been close enough to produce Thread, and the threat is but a memory to this medieval-ish society. But now, as the dragons breed, it seems the threat is genuine, and the people of Pern must scramble to fight the Thread before it is too late.

McCaffrey’s greatest strength here is, again, the world-building, both in its vastness and its depth. It is frankly amazing to see in the first book how much detail there is built into the world, and how much history is clearly placed behind all of it. I don’t know of McCaffrey was planning on turning the book into a massive series when she originally wrote it, but the pieces for that massive series are all there in the first book. The depth front-loaded into this first book can almost be overwhelming for a series newcomer, as I was, when I first read it. But the main plot carries the book along at a clipping pace, introducing numerous characters, locales, and ideas at a brisk rate that keeps you engaged even as you try to swim against the tide of hugeness rolling over you. 

As great as the worldbuilding is, the plot is just as good. The notion of an ancient threat is always compelling to me, as is any sense of inbuilt history. And here, we have those combined with some elements of fantasy and even some time travel thrown in. The main characters are interesting, and they work to solve some of the main problems in exciting, believable ways. They’re only developed a little throughout the book, but with everything else going on in the novel, it would be almost too much to have major character development over the course of the story as well. This is science fantasy of the best kind, and its soaring heights of dragons are balanced with other, deeper ideas that are only hinted at in this book.

I think Dragonflight is improved on a re-read. As I noted, the density of the world and ideas make it almost overwhelming the first time, but the second time through, it is easier to settle in and enjoy the world and characters and plot more, all while getting a refresher on the world. It’s an intricate, delightful novel. I am greatly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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.

Sci-Fi Hub: Vintage Sci-Fi, Hugo Awards, British SF Awards, and more!

Here, I’ve collected my links to all the various series of reviews (and other hubs) related to science fiction. Here, you can explore vintage science fiction, Star Wars related novels, recent works that I enjoyed enough to review, many Award winners and my own opinions on which should have won, Babylon 5, and more! Some are links to other Hubs (like the Babylon 5 Hub) so you can use this post as your launching point for many, many reviews of books, television shows, and movies. 

Contemporary Science Fiction Reviews 

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– I highlight two science fiction works that I read recently and adored. There’s a space unicorn! There are Stars… that aren’t claimed! 

A Masterpiece of Science Fiction: “Days” by James Lovegrove– It’s pretty rare that a book nails the feel of reality so well while also painting a thin layer of unreality over it. Lovegrove’s simply phenomenal acerbic critique of unfettered capitalism is set within a Gigastore, and it just gets better from there. It helped keep me sane during peak shopping season. 

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– I love when things get goofy, though I have to be in the mood for it. Each of these hit me in the right mood, and they’re gloriously witty science fiction reading. 

A Stunning Epic – “Empire of Silence” by Christopher Ruocchio– Books get compared to each other all the time–it’s a way for fans to easily recommend works to others. Here, the book is often compared to Dune, and it’s one of those rare times the comparison sticks. Ruocchio’s worldbuilding is as complex and epic as that comparison demands, though he takes it in a different direction. The good news is it’s a series and Ruocchio continues to reliably deliver them! 

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Steampunk is one of my favorite subgenres, but I find it’s rare that I find books in that subgenre that I enjoy. I don’t know if it’s that my taste is off, or that maybe I just like the genre due to video games, but that’s what it is. Anyway, I adored this book by Robyn Bennis. It had great characters, superb action, and steampunk goodness.

Remembering Ben Bova (1932-2020)– Bova’s passing impacted me deeply when I read about it. I’d been reading his books for more than 20 years, and his impact on my life as a reader went back into my childhood. I wrote a bit about my own journey reading his novels and the impact they had on me.

Vintage Sci-Fi

I read and review individual Vintage Science Fiction Novels

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg– I can’t stop thinking about this haunting road trip horror/fantasy novel.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker– A haunting, poignant look at time travel that is a must-read for sci-fi fans.  

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton– I’m a sucker for space archaeology, and this book with shades of red scare, Star Trek, and more drew me in.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold– The start of the Vorkorsigan Saga is a rip-roaring adventure that I love even after multiple reads.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprisingly thoughtful look at combat, PTSD, and more.

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- A novel I adored but probably didn’t understand as a child has even more meaning when reading it as an adult. And what could have been a gimmick is actually a fun way to organize a book. 

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov can (kind of) write characters! I enjoyed this one pretty well. 

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- One of those novels that makes you sit back and think on every page. It’s a phenomenal read that has a central plot with a surprising premise. 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm- A surprising, quiet novel that will keep you thinking long after you finish it. Certainly one of the more surprising Hugo winners. 

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg- What if the same problems facing time travel also faced predictions of the future? Silverberg twists the time travel formula by… not time traveling. 

Dragonflight by Anne McAffrey- The worldbuilding of McAffrey shines as the major star in this novel of science fantasy

“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” by Cordwainer Smith- Love as Resistance– I wrote a post about how a short story from Cordwainer Smith shows how activism can work through love. 

Two “First Contact” series you should read (and probably haven’t)–  I wrote introductions to a pair of series that relate the first contact of humanity to various aliens. I think you should read both of these series! 

“We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith– Actually a review of a modern collection of Smith’s stories and the novel Norstrilia. This post actually predates my “Vintage Sci-Fi” post format, and I’m hoping to eventually update it. For now, enjoy this review of this spectacular collection.

My Read-Through of the Hugos

These posts are a series in which I read through and review every single Hugo Award Winner and Nominee. I also pick my own winner out of the batch, which doesn’t always align. 

1953– There’s only one book, so is it a surprise that I picked it for my winner?

1954- No winner for Best Novel.

1955– This year’s winner is widely considered the worst book to ever win a Hugo. 

1956– Red scare of the best kind.

1957- No Winner for Best Novel.

1958– Only once choice again, but this one was great.

1959– A few contenders, but I picked one that got me thinking.

1960– How could anyone have picked anything but space pirates? I mean really.

1961– The voters got it right on a fantastic novel this year.

1962– The rise of Heinlein. Also, Plato’s Cave.

1963– I dusted off a classic here. (Sorry.)

1964– Easy to pick a winner this go-round.

1965– The voters were perhaps most wrong this year of all the years so far. My goodness, they voted for a yawner over an intense, wild classic.

1966– It’s not fair that these other books had to compete against Dune, because there were some good’ns. 

1967– I cried a lot over my choice of winner here.

1968– Space poetry written by Zelazny. 

1969– I get hooked on Lafferty.

1970– Not the strongest year, but it does feature an all-time classic.

1971– A strong demonstration of why I choose to read lists, as I discover a mostly-forgotten classic!

1972– Yet another year Silverberg should have won the Hugo.

2020– A fantastic mix of genres and authors. 

Reading the British Science Fiction Association Awards

I randomly pick some BSFA Winners to read and review. 

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (2008)– This book was essentially written for me. I love it so so much. 

Indie Fiction

These reviews are largely of indie or self-published books that I thought were worth your attention.

Indie April Highlight: “The Sword of Kaigen” by M.L. Wang– Need some steampunk wuxia in your life? Have I got a book for you!

Indie April Highlight: “Awaken Online: Catharsis” by Travis Bagwell– My introduction to LitRPG happened through this thrilling combination of gaming, AI, and real life. 

Indie Highlight: “The Wings of War” by Bryce O’Connor and “The Ixan Prophecies” by Scott Bartlett– I review a pair of indie works that will give you your money’s worth. 

TV

“Invincible” – Getting Hooked on a new superhero show (Episode 1)– Superheroes are all the rage but this first episode blew up my expectations in a big way.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Other Hubs

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my reviews related to Warhammer/40K/Horus Heresy fiction can be found here. Read grimdark to your heart’s content!

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Star Wars Hub– Reviews of many Star Wars: Expanded Universe novels are here, along with a few reviews of the new “canon” novels.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2020- Review and Retrospective

January was #VintageSciFiMonth, a month in which readers are encouraged to read vintage science fiction. I took to it with gusto, clearing out a slate for reading a bunch of older science fiction works that I’ve been wanting to dive into for a while. I also followed the hashtag and account on Twitter and picked up some recommendations for others. What defines a novel as vintage sci-fi? The working rule is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to give that wiggle room if you want! I decided to write out the list of vintage sci-fi I read for January and give them some brief ratings and reviews. I’d love to know what you read/enjoyed, as well. I’m always looking for more reads!

I also wrote some longer reviews in January for some of the works, and you can read those by clicking here and scrolling through.

My list of Reads and brief ratings

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold- I read this one with my wife this go-round, having convinced her to join in on the vintage sci-fi fun. I listened to it for this re-read, and I adored it even more than I did the first time. Bujold has an excellent writing style and characters that are very true to life. We both enjoyed it greatly. Grade: A

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson- Not the first time I’ve tried to read this one, I decided to tackle it at a slower pace and really pay attention to everything along the way this time. I enjoyed it even less than the first time I tried it. Anderson seems much more interested in telling us about the character’s sex lives than developing them as characters. The main plot didn’t draw me in at all, either. Grade: D+

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- I adored this book as a kid but definitely did not understand it. As an adult, I found it a fascinating, even subversive take on numerous modern (for its time) problems. Having it set around a real chess game somehow didn’t turn it all into a gimmick, either. It’s fantastic. Grade: A

The Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith– I enjoyed Smith’s Lensman series for what it was, but Skylark didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting. I forced myself through the series for completion’s sake, because that’s how I do things, but I did not enjoy it at almost any point. It’s dated, and it definitely shows… a lot. Grade: D

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprising take on what seemed initially to be generic military sci-fi. Zahn deals with trauma, PTSD, what to do with soldiers when they come home, colonialism, and more all while moving the plot along at an absolutely breakneck speed. Grade: A-

Thorns by Robert Silverberg- I found this one to be enthralling and haunting by turns. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for weeks afterwards as you can’t stop thinking about it. Silverberg really started off his “serious” sci-fi with a bang in this one. It’s nearly flawless. Grade: A+

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- What if I told you there were a book about cannibals in the future worshiping an orbiting spaceship and somehow all their extremely weird acts and creepy, sometimes disgusting rituals actually make sense? It’s a weird, almost horrible book. But it made it all so sensible! Definitely recommended. Grade: A

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak- The central plot isn’t fantastic, but I loved Simak’s lengthy monologues and explorations of the human, alien, and robot psyches. Not his best work, but still top-notch overall. I was surprised by how not-terribly he dealt with questions about colonialism as well. Grade: A-

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance- It’s a pulpy sci-fi adventure that shares themes and ideas with the Barsoom series (John Carter). It’s just not as fun as the Barsoom series, and so it was difficult for me to get into it. Served with a heaping helping of outdated gender norms, as well. Grade: C-

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny- A re-read for me. I’m still blown away by Zelazny’s stylistic prose here, which reads just like some translations of religious works I’ve read. It’s a fascinating sci-fi retelling of the rise of Buddhism from Hinduism and the colonization/import of Christianity as well. I loved it. Grade: A+

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton- A recommendation from another vintage sci-fi month reader, I grabbed it when they said fans of Star Trek would like it. I then spent about 85% of the book baffled by that comparison, but then I understood towards the end. It has all the trappings of some of my favorite sci-fi- ancient relics, linguistics, and adventure with huge themes. It’s serious and pulpy all at once and I loved it. Grade: A-

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov thought of some fantastic concepts and characters, finally, but then spent the last 1/3 or so of the book dumping it all down the drain with somewhat ironic inverse deus ex machinas and his own apparent view of a utopic planet. I don’t know, it was weird and stupid by turns, but the core ideas were good enough to keep me going. Grade: B-

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- I can’t really say enough about this one, which was my first Lafferty read ever. It’s deeply thoughtful, and the more you peel back its layers, the more you find. It has fascinating characters, and imports Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) into the future in strangely believable and fantastic ways. I loved every second of this book, and every page had me thinking and delving more deeply into it. Grade: A+

Project Pope by Clifford Simak- Every aspect of Simak’s thought is present here, from robots that are re-skins of humans to deep religious questioning to fascinating pastoral scenes. It’s almost like comfort food, until Simak hits you upside the head with a big idea that challenges how you think about some aspect of reality and faith. I adored it. Grade: A

Links

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Cobra” by Timothy Zahn

The cover is delightfully pulpy but also -very- misleading.

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.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn 

I ended up buying the omnibus edition of the Cobra Trilogy at Manticon 2015, where I met Zahn, David Weber (my favorite author), Eric Flint, and others. I got it signed while I was there, and for about 5 years it has languished on my TBR pile. But, having had the rare experience of exhausting my library pile before my weekly trip, I delved into some books I owned for once! With it being Vintage sci-fi month, I figured I’d check out Cobra, published in 1986.

Honestly, the premise didn’t really strike me as anything terribly exciting. A super soldier fights against enemies–it’s a standard trope of science fiction that’s made many an appearance. Of course, I’m a pretty big fan of military sci-fi, so I tend to gravitate this trope and others like it. But when I actually began reading the book, it became quickly apparent that the premise isn’t really what the book is about at all.

Jonny Moreau is a likable enough main character to whom we are introduced as he struggles with the question of whether to enlist or not. He quickly does, and suddenly finds himself slated to become a Cobra, a new kind of super soldier with heightened abilities to go along with a nanocomputer to help analyze and react to threats and a body built to suit it. Jonny expects to be deployed as a kind of undercover insurgent in advance of invading enemies, and we as readers go along assuming that’s what the book will then end up being about. But, again, it’s not. Just as Jonny is about to get involved in some serious war, witnessing glimpses here and there, we jump ahead years and instead see Jonny trying to cope with his memories back home. He tries to strike it back up with his girlfriend, he tries to find jobs, but he is ostracized as a freak due to his, well, freakish abilities having been a Cobra. He can’t blend in anywhere.

But it turns out the human government has a plan! They’ve made a deal with their alien enemies to colonize on the other side of their space, going through a narrow corridor the Trofts grudgingly open in order to get there. And who do they decide would be the perfect colonists? None other than the already super-adapted Cobra soldiers! Off they go! Thought you were reading a military sci-fi novel? Now you’re reading one about colonization. But there are more surprises in store because some Cobra units go rogue and try to set up their own government, then the Troft close off the corridor, and the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the Cobra have their own civilization that is set apart from the human Dominion of Man, and that’s pretty much where we end after a whirlwind of events set over more than a decade.

Honestly, this book is maybe 20% about being a super soldier and 40% about dealing with the stress and life that comes with being such a soldier with another 40% about the colonization of a new planet/government intrigue. PTSD (implied), trying to cope with the horrors of war that has home, questions of political loyalties: these are just a few of the heady topics Zahn brings up in Cobra. He does so in typical Zahn fashion, though, moving along with the action such that some of the most emotionally impactful moments go by very quickly. That’s probably the biggest weakness in Cobra: so much happens and it moves so quickly that readers aren’t able to fully appreciate or grasp the horror of Jonny’s life at points.

But it is there. All the pieces are in place. As a reader, you can see the horror, feel the awfulness of some of the situations, and sympathize with Jonny as it happens. Zahn does not quite pull the trigger on making the book entirely a commentary on the horrors of war, but it’s all there. It just gets a bit glorified towards the end with the colonization happening, but even there it is all imperfect, a little weird, and ambiguous. Zahn’s strength is in making compelling characters, and that certainly comes through in this book, but his unwillingness to fully embrace what seems like a core part of the book–the questions facing a super soldier with nothing to do–undermines the power of the book somewhat.

Having read Cobra, I’m left feeling a bit confused, to be honest. Looking back on it, I’d say it is an engaging read. It does not quite live up to the potential of some of the ideals Zahn hints at throughout, but it keeps the pages turning even as your brain is working to catch up with the themes and action. I enjoyed Cobra quite a bit and will definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. I’d recommend it to readers who are looking to go off the beaten path in their military sci-fi reading.

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.

Guest Post: “Seeing Our Present Through the Lens of the Past” – Vintage Sci-Fi

Pluto- Inspiration of many a sci-fi work, photo from NASA (Public Domain)

I’m very excited to offer up a guest post about Vintage Sci-Fi in anticipation of Vintage Sci-Fi Month (January). I hope you will join me an many others in dedicating a month of reading to vintage sci-fi (the loose definition of “vintage” that has been adopted is anything written before the year of your birth). I’m hosting this post as part of a blog tour for Vintage Sci-Fi Month!

Jacob of RedStarReviews is a lifelong reader who found out about #VintageSciFiMonth after it had been around for a few years and immediately joined in and now January is his favorite month of the year for reading.

Seeing Our Present Through The Lens Of The Past

We are almost in the year 2020. When we go back and read Vintage SciFi stories it’s quickly apparent that a lot of the authors guessed wrongly on how their future would turn out because we’ve bypassed several dates covered in these books and not left the solar system or met aliens or have personal jet packs in every household for ease of transportation. So why would we want to read stories that are seemingly outdated? Or even problematic in their views? That’s a question I’ve asked and been asked so I’ve invested some thought into this and would love sharing my answer with y’all!

I think there is great value (and fun) in seeing our present/near future through the eyes of the creative minds of our past. Some you’ll read and see they weren’t too far off, others are so far off it’s like you’re reading alternative histories, while others you read and you wonder if the author was a time traveler. However when you’re reading words directed towards the future from the past you’re also seeing the hopes, bias, dreams, fears, and thought processes from an earlier age and there is value in that. You can be reminded of how far we’ve come as a species and have hope that we’ll continue to grow; or maybe see where we’ve failed to grow and start addressing that. You get to see what dangers inspired concern in the hearts of those writers and consider if we’ve moved past those fears or if we still need to address those issues. You get to see us through their eyes and see if we measure up, fall short, or exceed their thoughts on the future of humanity.

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is a challenging and much needed experience! It is a worthwhile thought experiment and a good way to discover personal and societal growth. Vintage SciFi allows us the opportunity to do this and it’s one of the reasons why I love #VintageSciFiMonth and eagerly await January every year! I hope you’ll consider joining us this year and gain some new perspectives from older works.