Recently I have been reading a novel (more about that later) by William Gibson. Gibson is an accomplished science fiction writer, still mostly known for his 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer. Besides winning the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award, the novel is credited with solidifying the cyberpunk SF sub-genre. I remember reading the book in the mid-eighties, but don’t recall much apart from the fact that I didn’t particularly like it and didn’t see what the brouhaha was about. In retrospect, that may have been due to the fact that I read the book in German translation. In those pre-Amazon times, paperbacks published in the US or UK were difficult to find (even in bookstores in a university city like Heidelberg) and even if available, cost at least two times as much as in US/UK bookstores and three times as much as a German translation. Being a badly-paid postdoc and a voracious reader at the time, the choice was easy, if perhaps not the wisest. Whatever may have been the case, years later (now being a badly-paid scientist) I bought a used copy of the second volume in the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. This time the book was in English and I recall liking it, but not much else (well, it is about 30 years ago, so I hope my poor memory may be forgiven…)
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition. Berkley, 2003, 367 pp. ISBN 978-0-425-19868-1
Rating: 2 out of 10
Anyway, let’s move on to the direct cause for this blog post: the book that I recently read, Pattern Recognition. Like Neuromancer, it is the first novel of a trilogy. Published in 2003, it is already older (readers of my blog may have noticed that I often read or re-read older works). Apparently, Gibson was trying to break through into mainstream literature and succeeded in the sense that the novel was generally well-received and made it onto mainstream bestseller lists. However, to give away my personal evaluation: I did not like it at all and do not think it was a success.
The story is set in the present day and follows a woman, Cayce Pollard, who is allergic to certain logos. She once almost goes into an anaphylactic shock because someone exposes her to a Michelin Man doll. Even though as a science fiction reader I am used to accept unrealistic things (such as Faster Than Light travel or communication), I found this rather hard to swallow. Allergic to the Michelin Man… Really?
Another quibble that I had with the book is that the story is not particularly enticing. But the worst part was the language. The book virtually screams to me “I’m a serious writer!! This is serious literature!! Look how erudite I am!!” In earlier posts I have commented on certain books using flowery or even poetic language. This goes far beyond that and for all the trying, fails miserably. Let me give just one (rather egregious) example (top of p. 82):
She’s long kept track of certain obscure mirror-world pop figures, not because they interest her in themselves but because their careers can be so compressed, so eerily quantum-brief, like particles whose existence can only be proven, after the fact, by streaks detected on specially sensitized plates at the bottom of disused salt mines.
That’s one sentence. That’s right: One! And if after reading it only once you know what it means, you can concentrate on a text better than I can. The first time I encountered a sentence like this, I laughed, but as it went on and on, torturing poor defenseless language this way went beyond funny. I gave this book 2 out of 10, as 1 is reserved for the (exceedingly rare) case that I do not even finish a book. That has happened only once or twice in over 50 years of SF reading. So, I did finish this novel, painful as it was, but the two other volumes of this trilogy will rest unread on my shelves.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. Orbit, 2015, 501 pp. ISBN 978-0-316-09809-0
Rating: 9 out of 10
Shortly after I read Pattern Recognition, I got to a more recent book, Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is from the same generation as Gibson, he’s just a few years younger and his first novel was published in the same year as Gibson’s, 1984. However, Aurora is as different from Pattern Recognition as night from day. Where Gibson’s language is tortured and shows signs of having been reworked time and again, Robinson’s beautiful writing seems almost effortless, even though I am fairly certain that it was anything like that. Where Gibson’s story is unremarkable, Robinson dazzles us again with his original thoughts and inventions. And where he previously failed to mesmerize me, this time I had trouble putting the book down.
The story is about a generation ship, traveling to a nearby star system. Coincidentally, the first “serious” science fiction novel that I ever read was Robert A. Heinlein‘s Orphans of the Sky. It was in the summer of 1968 at an astronomy camp organized by the late Bert van Sprang. That novel blew me away and ever since I have hardly read anything for fun other than science fiction.
Back to Aurora. Even though he was not the first to come up with this idea, Heinlein’s treatment of the generation ship theme was seminal. However, Robinson’s take is much more realistic. In fact, I think it is the most realistic description of what such a ship would look like and which problems its passengers/inhabitants might encounter than I have ever read before. I won’t go into further detail: read this novel for yourself!
I only have just one tiny quibble: I don’t buy Robertson’s explanation of why interstellar colonization is bound to fail. However, that really is just a minor point and while I suggest to avoid Pattern Recognition, I heartily recommend Aurora!