Recent Reads: David Weber & Joelle Presby, The Road to Hell

 

David Weber & Joelle Presby, The Road to Hell. Baen, 2016, 1009 pp. ISBN 978-1-4767-8188-4

Rating: 3 out of 10

 

 

David Weber is a hugely prolific author and one of my favorites. At last count, I own 58 of his books (some of them containing more than one novel). But recently I have started to have mixed feelings about his work. Previously I have written about what I like about it. Here, I’m afraid that I will have to write about what I don’t like about his work.

The horrible names used in his Safehold series have been mentioned before. Fortunately, that is not too much of a problem in his Multiverse series, of which this is the third volume. Sure, the names of his characters are not directly everyday names, but at least they are not phonetic Anglo-Saxon names either.

The premise of this series is that there exist multiple universes (a multiverse, a concept first popularized by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock in 1963), that are connected through “gates” that appear spontaneously. Although it is not mentioned, these gates seem to be permanent. Here we get to my first quibble with this series. These gates do not necessarily occur at the same geographical location (even though they seem always to connect two places on different alternative Earths). This leads to situations where, for example, a gate intersects a river, which from then on streams from one Earth to another one. Others are at different heights, leading to a difference in atmospheric pressure and a more-or-less constant wind blowing from one universe into another one. No attention is paid to what I think should be rather obvious: after some time (depending on the size of the particular gate), air pressure should equalize around the gate. This would mean that air pressure would severely diminish in the universe where the gate is at a lower altitude, and increase in the other universe. Similarly for the water flowing through that river. It might take a few centuries, but one universe would get drier and the other one wetter.

Lets go back to the story. Two civilizations are both exploring this multiverse, colonizing adjacent Earths (most universes, while strongly resembling each other and all having life that is similar, do not have human populations). Of course, at one point they meet each other and due to an almost criminally-incompetent under-officer, a blood bath ensues and both sides find themselves at war with an opponent about whom they hardly know anything. Unknown to these people (but rather evident to the reader from this Earth), the physical laws differ slightly between different universes, so that in one home universe magic functions whereas the other universe relies on strongly developed mental abilities like telepathy and premonition. Ignoring the quibble above, this makes for a rather interesting setting.

However, there are serious problems with this series, which I am afraid is symptomatic for Weber’s recent work. Like the Safehold series, this one moves at a glacial pace. In 1009 pages, we advance from November 29, 1928 CE to May 3, 1929 CE. Barely three months… And this in a multiverse where it takes months even to send a message from one end of a chain of universes to another. The use of CE dates (in addition to the calendars used by the two opposing universes) makes me fear the worst: is the story at some point going to add a gate to our own universe? Which, of course, should be at some point in our future? Meaning that at a pace of 3 months per 1000 pages we have something like 400,000 pages to look forward to? Please no!

In fact, I’m not even sure that I will buy the next installment in this series, because the glacial pace with which the narrative advances is not even the worst part of this book. No, those are the endless discussions of military logistics. Yes, I get it, provisioning an army is complicated, especially one that is tens of thousands of kilometers away from its nearest base (all those universes add up to large distances). I really get it. But why do I have to read about every minor discussion of transporting feed for animals and men, ammunition, weapons, and whatnot in excruciating detail?

I’m afraid that the title of this book is all wrong. A much more appropriate title would have been Boring as Hell… And by giving this a score of 3 out of 10, I am being generous.

 

Recent Reads: Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

2312

 

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312. Orbit, 2012, 660 pp. ISBN 978-0-316-09811-3

Rating: 8 out of 10

 

Kim Stanley Robinson is not a hugely prolific author, having published 19 novels since 1984. He is best know for his Mars trilogy for which he received multiple awards, including two Hugo Awards and a Nebula Award. Recently, I got a copy of his 2012 novel 2312, which won the 2013 Nebula.

The novel plays 3 centuries in the future when all habitable planets have been colonized, even hot Mercury, where there is a city named Terminator which sits on rails to enable it to move and stay on the terminator, the only region on Mercury where temperatures allow colonization. In fact, the terminator on Mercury moves so slowly that not only can Terminator easily match its speed, but people can also keep up with it walking on the surface, seeing the sun rise each time they want.

Besides Mars, Venus, and the Jovian and Saturnian moons, most asteroids have been hollowed out and are also inhabited. These terrariums, of which there are tens of thousands, are each constructed to contain an artificial ecosystem, which may replicate a terrestrial one or something completely new, containing engineered species. The terrariums serve as repositories for the many animal species that have gone extinct on Earth, as well as agricultural colonies providing much of the food for the Solar system.

The story in the book revolves about a murder that has taken place in Terminator and the victim’s granddaughter crisscrosses through the Solar system in search for clues about the how and why. This, of course, offers Robinson the opportunity to show us the grand vistas for which he is known.

The novel is full of interesting ideas, the terminator walkers on Mercury and the terrariums being only a few of them. Equally fascinating are Robinson’s ideas about gender, which in his future has become completely fluid.

Reading the book, one understands why Robinson is not as prolific as some other authors. The labor that has gone into this text is palpable. The composition of the book has obviously been given great thought and the language used is beautiful, often lyrical, sometimes even poetic, without becoming syrupy or crossing over into kitsch. Every page contains memorable thoughts, aphorisms, and ideas. My favorite scene is when the animals return to Earth (I won’t say more to avoid spoilers).

So I gave this novel a score of 8 out of 10 and given the foregoing praise one may wonder why I didn’t give it a 9 or even a 10. The reason for that is that, somehow, the book failed to grip me. It kept me interested enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t mesmerizing me as other books do, which I can hardly put down. There’s nothing specific that I can put my finger on, but here it is: despite the fascinating ideas sprinkled so amply throughout this book, it did not capture me. However, this should not discourage readers, the wealth of ideas is worth the ride. Heck, I might even read it again some day!

Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Able One

Able1

 

Ben Bova, Able One. Tor, 2010, 369 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6358-9

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

 

As I told the audience at WorldCon75, Ben Bova is one of my favorite authors. I won’t say that he’s the most exciting or literary SF author around, because he isn’t. However, his books have a constant quality and invariably provide an interesting and entertaining read. Some time ago, I checked my book collection for lacunae and noticed that I missed Able One, a novel published in 2010. It’s out of print, but I obtained a used copy through Amazon and recently got around to reading it. I was not disappointed.

As usual, Bova delivers a gripping story. This one is set in a very near future. That, of course, always poses the risk that current events may overtake the extrapolation used in the novel. And indeed it happens here, too, but not in a way that distracts too much from the narrative. An important part of the story is played by North Korea, after the death of Kim Jong-il. Kim indeed passed away about a year after this book was published, but the civil strive mentioned in the book did not take place and, instead, Kim was succeeded rather seamlessly by his son, Kim Jong-un. Of course, the civil strive described by Bova might still come about, if something were to happen to the current supreme leader.

The novel begins when a dissident faction of the North Korean Army launches a missile that puts a nuclear warhead into a geostationary orbit and subsequently explodes it. The resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all but the most hardened military satellites that orbit the Earth and as a result, many essential services shut down. This, of course, brings immediately to mind the recent test by North Korea of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, even though an intercontinental ballistic missile will probably not be able to reach geostationary orbit. Indeed, in the book the North Koreans are helped by either the Russians or the Chinese to accomplish this feat. Similarly, they obtain nuclear warheads from the same source, which is a bit surprising, because in reality North Korea already had performed two nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009), before this book was published.

The destruction of so many satellites leads to interruption in major services, most notably the breakdown of the GPS system and communications, including the Internet. Electrical power goes down in many places, too, as it depends on intricate balances between different power grids, whose coordination depends on fast and secure communications. In addition, because the weather satellites are down, accurate weather forecasting becomes completely impossible. All this has, of course, serious consequences for the people depending on these services. This brings me to one of the major weaknesses of this book. Several subplots are started at this point of the narrative: A jumbo jet in trouble because the navigation system is down, a family lost in a blizzard, a woman trying to buy pecans, and more. However, those subplots are mostly left dangling and we never learn, for example, what the fate of that troubled jumbo jet is.

Meanwhile in Alaska, ABL-1, a modified 747 with on-board an experimental laser system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the early stages of their launch trajectory, is ready for a test flight when orders come in from the Pentagon to fly in the direction of Japan and North Korea. In fact, the North Koreans have two more intercontinental ballistic missiles set up, and it is feared that these will be fired against the United States mainland in an attempt to start a nuclear war. I won’t go into more detail about the plot and how the mission develops, except to say that during its flight, ABL-1 needs to be refueled in flight and gets severely damaged by enemy fire.

These latter details were rather similar to a book that, by happenstance, I read just before Able One. This was Two Hours To Doom (published in the USA with the considerably weaker title Red Alert) by Peter Bryant (a pseudonym of Peter Bryan George) and originally published way back in 1958. Fatale CommandoThe reason I came to read such an old and relatively obscure book was that while inserting some recently-acquired books into my collection, I stumbled upon it and realized that I didn’t remember ever having read it. My copy is in Dutch (Het fatale commando), meaning that I must have bought it before I left the Netherlands back in May 1984. It is well possible, therefore, that I read it over 33 years ago and completely forgot all about it. After re-reading it, I looked it up in Wikipedia and discovered to my surprise that it apparently had served as inspiration for Stanley Kubrick‘s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Of course, it’s also very long ago that I saw that movie, but I remember enough of it to be surprised anyway. Where the movie is a comedy, albeit a dark one, the book is deadly serious (and there is no “Dr. Strangelove” anywhere in the book, neither by name nor by character).

The parallels between the two books are easy to see. In both cases a large plane gets hit by enemy fire while it is on a desperate mission: nuclear war and the end of life on Earth as we know it looms. Another common point is that the motives and thinking of the opposing parties do not receive much attention. But there the similarities end. In Able One, the mission is to prevent nuclear war (by trying to destroy the North Korean missiles when they get launched). In Red Alert, the mission of the B-52 bomber Alabama Angel is to drop two nukes on Soviet targets as a retaliation for a supposed attack on the US (which unbeknownst to the crew actually never happened). Both stories are gripping and like Able One, Red Alert is very readable, even nowadays. Of course, Red Alert does not try to extrapolate into the future and doesn’t run the risk of being overtaken by current events like Able One. Instead, however, the plane’s defenses, the fact that no intercontinental ballistic missiles are operational yet (although their deployment is imminent), and other military and political details make that the book, even while it was clearly not intended that way, reads like a historical novel.

In the end, Bova turns out to be the better writer. Even though character development is not his strongest point, the people in his novel are clearly more rounded and fleshed-out than the rather flat and interchangeable characters in the otherwise competently written Red Alert. Both books are worth a read: Able One because it provides a few hours of entertainment and Two Hours To Doom because it gives an excellent idea of the mindsets of American military and politicians during a critical period of the Cold War.

Writing a scientific article: How to respond to reviewers

Somebody once told me: “if a reviewer asks for certain changes in your manuscript, you must follow those instructions or your article will get rejected.” Is that indeed the case?

I think that it depends. Very often, once we have overcome our justified anger that this nitwit of a reviewer dares assume that our carefully written manuscript is anything less than perfect, it actually turns out that the reviewer has a good point and that incorporating the suggestion will, in fact, improve the manuscript. So that’s the easy case: do it! (And say “thank you” in your cover letter).

Then there’s the case where a reviewer wants some inconsequential change, for reasons that move them but otherwise remain obscure. Well, if it matters that little, humor them. After all, they just spend some valuable hours of their lives going through your manuscript. (Yes, I know it was flawless, but they had to read it anyway before they could acknowledge your brilliance).

Finally, there’s a case where the reviewer wants you to make some changes, but you strongly disagree with what they say. Some people will argue that you just have to bite the bullet. “The referee said it, so we must do it otherwise the editor will reject it”.

I beg to differ. A good editor does not simply count reviewers’ votes. (Which is why I prefer to call them “reviewers” and not “referees”). A reviewer advises the editor. Nothing less than that, but nothing more either. Sometimes you see a reviewer write something like “I cannot accept this for publication” (or even “I reject this for publication”). Well, that’s a reviewer who doesn’t understand the editing process… Reviewers give advice, editors make decisions.

Anyway, so a reviewer makes a comment and you disagree. Again, several cases are possible. To start with, “that idiot does not understand what I am talking about”! Calm down. Yes, your manuscript is flawless, but if a reviewer who is committed to read your manuscript attentively misunderstands something that you wrote, then the risk that a more casual reader misunderstands you in a similar way is probably quite considerable. In this case, I gingerly suggest that the possibility exist that it might be feasible to reformulate your text a teeny tiny bit, just to make it clearer for that dumb reviewer. My advise to my graduate students (and to authors in general) always is that your writing must be so clear that it is impossible to misunderstand, even by a hypothetical somebody who actively wants to misunderstand you. Hence: revise and tell the reviewer (and editor) that you regret not being clear enough and have clarified your text.

Another case is when a reviewer disagrees with your interpretation of your data. You might then consider to address this not only in your (detailed) cover letter to the editor outlining your responses, but actually incorporate this in your discussion. Again, if the reviewer comes up with this, some reader might do the same. So the best course of action is to address the issue and explain clearly in your manuscript (and without telling the reviewer how stupid their suggestion is, for some reason they often don’t react well to that) why you disagree with their point of view.

And then there is the case when a reviewer really has an opinion with which you strongly disagree and which you think is clearly wrong. In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to state in your cover letter: “Not done”. Of course, you then dispassionately explain why you disagree and why you think this part of your manuscript should not be changed.

Once your revised manuscript and its cover letter have been submitted, the editor may decide to send it out for re-review, most likely to the same reviewers, or they may decide for themselves whether or not they agree with your reasoning and make an editorial decision of accept or reject based on their own judgment. This is why a clear, dispassionate, and well-reasoned cover letter is so important when revising your manuscript.

Of course, very often you have to go through multiple iterations of this process. And while this whole process is often quite painful, it helps to keep in mind that almost always, editors and reviewers are trying to help you improve your manuscript. Sure, I have also heard all the horror stories about incompetent and/or malevolent reviewers, but in my own experience as an editor, I have only once or twice encountered a bad-faith reviewer. At worst, a reviewer writes something like “good article, publish it”. That’s not an advice that is very helpful for either the authors or the editor (who based on this brief comment cannot even be sure that the reviewer actually read the manuscript) and is likely to be ignored completely.

Recent Reads: John Varley, Thunder and Lightning series

red thunderred lightningrolling thunderdark lightning

John Varley, Red Thunder. Ace Books, 2003, 411 pp. ISBN 0-441-01162-4

John Varley, Red Lightning. Ace Books, 2006, 351 pp. ISBN 978-0-441-01488-0

John Varley, Rolling Thunder. Ace Books, 2008, 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-441-01772-0

John Varley, Dark Lightning. Ace Books, 2014, 341 pp. ISBN 978-0-425-27408-8

Rating: 9 out of 10

John Varley has been one of my favorite SF authors for a long time. He’s not hugely productive: his website lists 13 novels and 6 short-story collections in a career spanning 40 years since the publication of his first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline. His books have invariably been highly original, coming up with surprising concepts and gadgets every couple of pages. He also has a keen sense of humor and a penchant for composing phrases that stay with you for years. My favorite is the opening line of Steel Beach: “‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the salesman.” (Personally, I would have phrased this slightly different: “‘In five years’, the salesman said, ‘the penis will be obsolete’.” Judge for yourself which version you prefer…) Besides being a gifted author, Varley is an avid fan of Robert A. Heinlein, one of my favorite authors.

Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series consists of 4 novels and is an homage to Heinlein’s juvenile novels. In consequence, the main characters of each novel are all adolescents. The series is a feast of memories for any Heinlein enthusiast. Almost any personage bears the name of one of Heinlein’s most famous characters. The first novel in the series, Red Thunder, introduces us to Manny Garcia and his best friend Dak. Mannie is fascinated by space travel but has little hope of eventually becoming an astronaut, as his family is poor and he spends most of his time that he is not in school helping his family run a more or less dilapidated business, the Blast-Off Motel, close to Cape Canaveral. Early on, the friends meet a former astronaut, Travis Broussard, and his brilliant physicist cousin, Jubal. And on it goes. For example, the protagonist of the third novel, Rolling Thunder, is Manny’s granddaughter, Podkayne, and those of the fourth novel, Dark Lightning, are the twins, Cassie and Polly. Of course, there are many more and probably also some that I didn’t recognize because I read the relevant Heinlein novel too long ago. That is also the reason that I recently (re-)read all four volumes of this series. I had originally bought the first volumes when they appeared and read them at the time. For some reason I didn’t buy the fourth volume, Dark Lightning, when it came out in 2014 and only recently became aware of my omission. However, when the book arrived and I started reading it, I soon realized that I didn’t remember much more than rough outlines of the previous three novels, so I stopped reading and (re-)read the whole series in the space of a little bit more than a week. It was an exercise that I can heartily recommend!

In principle, the four books can be read independently, but in my experience the series makes much more sense when they are read in close proximity. The story is in the best traditions of the Golden Age and Heinlein’s proclivity for private initiative as opposed to (usually inept) government action is faithfully maintained. The action starts with a space race between China and the United States to be the first to land on Mars, which the US is losing. Badly, in fact, because the propulsion drives of their space ship blow up before Mars is even reached. Enter Manny and his friends, who, armed with a drive based on limitless energy (an invention of Jubal), build a spaceship on a shoestring budget of $1 million, using second-hand space suits and an old railroad tanker car. And although they start building only after the American and Chinese missions have already been launched and are well underway, the continuous propulsion that Jubal’s limitless energy source makes possible, allows them to arrive on Mars first, before the Chinese. Basically as an afterthought, they rescue the survivors of the US mission on their way home.

The second novel, Red Lightning is set a generation later on Mars, which has been colonized and where a now adult Manny owns a hotel, while his mother still manages her motel in Florida back on Earth. If you know Heinlein, you won’t be surprised that one of the subplots involves Earth trying to impose its will on the Martian colonists. The main plot concerns a disaster on Earth, which is struck by an unknown object, and Mannie and his family and friends travel to a Florida devastated by a huge tsunami to search for his mother. During all this, Mannie’s son Ray finds his soulmate and their daughter, Podkayne, is the protagonist of the third novel, Rolling Thunder. The fourth volume is set aboard a generation ship, named Rolling Thunder, and the protagonists are the twin daughters of Podkayne and Jubal, Cassie and Pollie.

I am not going to describe the plots in more detail, so as not to spoil the fun for anybody who has not yet read these books. Suffice to say that there are several original inventions that are vintage Varley. For example, Red Lightning (which starts with one of the shortest opening lines that I’ve ever seen: “Mars sucks”) starts with a vivid description of Ray Garcia-Strickland, Mannie’s son, riding his surf board down from Phobos to Thunder City (yep, there’s a pattern here…), something that is made possible by the low Martian gravity, the thin atmosphere, and Jubal’s limitless energy invention. This space surfing is something many adolescents do and is considered about as safe as ocean surfing in Florida. An added original touch is that many kids cover the underside of their “surf board” (more like an open miniature space craft) with chemicals that burn off during descent, leaving a brightly colored sparkling trail, kind of like a fire cracker.

According to a 2009 interview on Republibot, the fourth volume is the last one in the series, but to me it feels that the story isn’t finished yet. And I, for one, would love to learn how things develop further now that Jubal has invented a drive that permits immediate displacement over stellar distances!

Recent Reads: Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game

TINAG

 

Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game. Victor Orbit, 2010, 461 pp. ISBN 978-1-84149-664-1

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

 

 

 

 

At the recent WorldCon75, one of the guests of honor was Walter Jon Williams. IMG_2459.JPGAlthough I had seen his name before (mainly on Amazon reading recommendations), I had never read anything from this author before. I liked his presence at the meeting and found his remarks insightful and funny, so I decided to buy one of his books, which he graciously signed for me.

This book is the first in a series of four (for now) about a character named Dagmar Shaw. Dagmar works for a company that creates huge multi-player on-line games, that have real-world components, for which she is the responsible operative. I am not into this kind of games at all, so I can’t tell whether this is a thing that already exists or not. However, it is not difficult to imagine that something similar could probably be done with current technology. The recent hype around Pokémon Go comes to mind, for example.

After some initial adventures, one of the protagonists is murdered and the story becomes a whodunit, with Dagmar using the possibilities offered by the game that she’s developing to find the killer. I found the story interesting, but not really fascinating, although there is admittedly quite some suspense at the beginning when Dagmar is caught up in some serious civil unrest. (I won’t go into more detail, to avoid spoilers). However, I would almost not think of this book as science fiction. As I said, the main theme of the book concerns the on-line game with real-life components, and that is not really all that original a thought (not even when taking into account that the book was written about 8 years ago). The story is placed in a world in the near future, but the political and societal background really is only that, background, and instead of the near future, the present could likely have been used without any fundamental changes to the narrative.

The fact that this, in my eyes, barely qualifies as science fiction is the main reason for the low rating that I give this book, but I cannot finish this without pointing to one thing that after a while started to irritate me mildly. The (generally brief) chapters have titles and all start, like the title of the book, with “This is not” (…a rescue, …a Batcave, …a dream, etc). This is slightly funny in the beginning, but by the end of the book, the gimmick runs thin.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book if you’re really into on-line role-playing gaming. If not, then your reading time is probably better spent elsewhere. I’ll give Williams another try and get one of his works that is more obviously science fiction, but will probably steer away from the other volumes in this series.

Recent Reads: Robert Silverberg, A Time of Changes

ATOC

 

 

Robert Silverberg, A Time of Changes. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1973, 221 pp. ISBN 0-575-01610-8

Rating: 10 out of 10

 

 

 

“I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself”. This is the seemingly-innocuous first line of A Time of Changes, a novel that was first published in 1971 as a series in Galaxy. But on the continent of Velada Borthan, on the planet Borthan, this phrase is more obscene than any combination of gutter expressions for human genitalia ever could be. In fact, an autobiography like this is an abomination for the people of Velada Borthan, the epitome of the cardinal sin of “self-baring”, in a civilization where the words “I” and “me” are among the worst, or even the worst, obscenities that one can utter.

Before continuing, perhaps I should explain what led me to return to a novel that I had read many years past and that was first published 46 years ago. Earlier this month I attended WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, Finland (see this), where I had the privilege to meet SF Grand Master Robert Silverberg for the third time. (The other two times were at Confiction, 1990, and Noreascon 4, 2004). The first two times, I had one or two books autographed by Silverberg and I wanted to have at least one more at this occasion. However, it proved extremely difficult to find one of his books in the trade hall. There was only one large bookseller and they didn’t have any of Silverberg’s books. I also went through all the second-hand books displayed by another large book seller, but without any luck. When I was looking through the single bookcase that a seller of game paraphernalia had, I actually bumped into Silverberg himself.

I told him that I was desperately searching for one of his books, but couldn’t find anything, to which he replied that he had found some, but in Finnish. He had bought them, because the publisher had never sent him a copy. I admitted that my Finnish was perhaps not as good as I would like and told him that this was the third time that we met. Like the previous two times, I told him that his books always make me think, one of the biggest compliments that I can give to a writer. At this point, I let him go, although I would have loved to talk with him more. However, a writer of his stature (by far the most accomplished writer present at that meeting, the presence of George R. R. Martin notwithstanding) is much solicited during a meeting like this and I didn’t want to behave like some breathless fan (even though I am…)

IMG_4636
Photo courtesy of Pekka Timonen

Despite my lack of prowess with the Finnish language, I was on the verge of buying some of Silverberg’s books in that (to me) very foreign language when, finally, at a stand having just a handful of second-hand books, I spotted two of his books in English, A Time of Changes being one of them, and in pristine condition at that. Later that afternoon, Silverberg autographed it during his signing session (together with the second book, his short story collection Sunrise on Mercury). While doing so, he noticed the Ex Libris label pasted on the inside of the front cover (see photo). It turned out that this copy had been part of the collection of an acquaintance of his, Sam J. Lundwall, a famous Swedish SF writer and the author of an authoritative history of science fiction, Science fiction: An Illustrated History. So even though I had the book already in my collection (Of course!) it obviously was well worth the 10 Euros that I paid for it!

Well, after that rather lengthy diversion, back to the book. As I didn’t really remember the story, I decided to read it again. That proved to be a rewarding experience: it is surprisingly fresh and hasn’t aged at all. Partly that is because technology does not play any role in the story. Yes, there is space travel and people use phones and ground cars and planes. However, no details are given and the general level of technology of this world is about the same as what we had in the 1950s, without there being much interest in scientific or technological advances. So the most obvious pitfall for science fiction writers, being bypassed by modern technology, is avoided. Of course, one notices that the novel reflects its times (as even future-oriented SF novels almost always do). 1971 was the high point of the flower power and hippie movements and, indeed, the major theme of the book is love (only for a minor part in its romantic sense) and how a certain indigenous psychedelic drug might help people to understand and love each other. It would not be Silverberg’s style to get lost into the more dreamy and mushy aspects of that counterculture, but its influence nevertheless is clearly there.

As mentioned above, the book is written as the autobiography of a person living on this planet in this culture where each person’s mind is their castle, to be guarded from others. Referring to oneself as “I” or “me” is absolutely forbidden and people are forced to refer to themselves as “one” (and reading through the above, this seems to have rubbed off on this one, too…). From this seemingly simple premise, Silverberg explores the ramifications of such an attitude and, in just 200 pages, builds a believable society around the “Covenant”, an ancient document which formalizes the interdiction of “self-baring”, the obscene act of sharing one’s thoughts and feelings with others.

As is the case with the best that SF has to offer, it’s not technology or science that is the most important thing in this book: it’s people. And Silverberg succeeds majestically. Although there is surprisingly little action in this story, still the narrative, consisting mostly of the inner feelings and thoughts of Kinnall, is captivating. By the end of the book, one feels as if one knows the main character intimately. Kinnall has his own style of writing, clearly different from Silverberg’s own usual style. The prose is formal, at times poetic. The ending of the book is open as the reader doesn’t get to know whether or not Kinnall Darival succeeds in his attempt to break the Covenant and open his countrymen to love for one another.  Personally I feel, however, that it is most likely that in the long run he will have succeeded, given the large number of people, many of them important and influential, whom he has converted to his creed of sharing, before finally being captured.

Summarizing, I strongly recommend this captivating, highly-original tale of what it means (or should mean) to be human.