Reading Through the Bookcase: David Brin and John Brunner

I’ve been on quite a science fiction jaunt lately. After I finished my Jane Austen books, I was in the mood for another switch, so I went back over to science fiction for a bit. I read one David Brin, two John Brunners, and four Arthur C. Clarkes. I’ll get to Clarke in a later post, because I have a bit to say there.

David Brin: The Postman

Book cover for The Postman, by David BrinI don’t often read “post-apocalypse” books (or, for that matter, watch such movies), because I just get too depressed by them. And that was probably why I started The Postman, by David Brin, so reluctantly and took a while to get going on it. I did love the idea of a guy discovering an old postal worker’s uniform and starting to use it to gain entry into little suspicious enclaves of survivors who tended to run their towns in a way that made the old Wild West look like a prim high society dinner party. And I liked how people were so moved by the uniform, and started sending letters to people and relatives they hoped were still alive in towns several miles away, gradually starting to create a movement taking people back to civilization. The thought gives me goosebumps.

But I didn’t like reading about how war, an “ultimate weapon” that killed electronic communications, and finally a plague wiped out virtually all of the civilized institutions in North America (and probably the world). Or how huge bands of “survivalists” throughout the country, especially the west, were the reason that civilization didn’t recover from those disasters — when it really could have done so and probably would have.

The story was intriguing and, ultimately, very hopeful. But even so, although I ended up enjoying it a great deal, it still made me uneasy. I felt that I was actually reading a prediction of our future. Who knows how many secret camps and stashes of weapons and food there are, down in people’s basements or in bunkers created on wilderness properties? Sometimes it seems like they’re all doing it. Fundamentalist Christians are literally training their kids to be “warriors” and to violently resist the government, who they think are “persecuting” them despite the way they enjoy greater favour and control in North America than anywhere else on the planet. Gun nuts are doing the same thing, even without any Christian connection (though very often, the two groups are the same). And white supremacists are doing the same thing. Every one of them planning to “take the nation back” in some stupid way. When what they’re really going to end up doing is killing each other and innocent bystanders with great gusto and destroying what could have been the greatest civilization ever seen in history.

So…yes, I did really enjoy The Postman. And at the same time, I disliked it a lot, only because I sometimes felt that I was reading a history of the future. A future I think I might even live to see.

John Brunner: Science Fiction and Fantasy!

I’ve never known much about John Brunner. For years, I only had his book, The Long Result, and then someone gave me The Traveler in Black as well.

I actually read The Long Result when I was a young teenager, and it was just the right length for me at that time. The plot moved fairly quickly, and it was quite a straightforward story about managing Earth’s future contacts with alien species from the stars. It did what the early science fiction novels were meant to do: engage in speculation and give us a “what if” glimpse of a possible future, based on science.

TheTravelerInBlackWhich was why I was then so delighted with The Traveler in Black, as it was a total contrast. It’s a fantasy novel of somewhat the same ilk as Michael Moorcock’s Elric books. That is, it portrays a world where Chaos holds considerable sway, manifested by strange Elementals and gods and magic. The stranger Traveler is working to bring everything that is chaotic under the umbrella of Order. But in the meantime, we are surrounded by hints of high and strange magicks or arcane relationships–none of which are ever explained but of which there are countless signs and evidences all around us. (A river that changes the nature of anything that enters its waters. A wizard of such foul nature that every time he speaks, plants and animals shrivel and die all around him, and foul creeping things emerge and devour them. Sights that are never described but which, in the story, destroy the minds of any who behold them.)

I’ve always liked stories that leave some mystery. Yes, I love science fiction, and I do like things explained. And yet…I love SF stories that recognize that there are some things we haven’t figured out yet. (See my next post, about the Rama books, for example.) And while I also recognize that a fantasy story is unlikely to seem plausible unless it is consistent, internally, I love stories that don’t explain the mechanics of absolutely everything.

So I was positively tickled to read The Traveler in Black. I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up the Brunner books after reading Brin’s. But the Traveler, in particular, really delighted me. Kind of an odd sort of palate cleanser.

Book covers -- The Postman by David Brin, and The Long Result and The Traveler in Black, by John Brunner

 

 

Reading Through the Bookcase: Jane Austen

I only have three of Jane Austen’s novels — Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility — so those were the only ones I read in my “read through the bookcase” immersion. And I remain convinced that Pride and Prejudice is far and away the best of the three. Sense and Sensibility didn’t make sense at all to me. And Emma…well. It’s got its own story.

Emma

I read Emma first, and my copy includes a long Introduction. The author claims that this book is Austen’s most mature book, showing how her writing had matured and developed. That sure wasn’t the impression I got! But he did say something I really agreed with, though: that you get something very different each time you read this book. I believe he ascribed this fact to changes in your own life; the different response to Emma depends on the different person that you are, each time you read it.

In that case, I’ve changed again, and how. When I first read the book, as a teenager, I wasn’t thrilled by it and found it a bit boring. Then, perhaps fifteen years later, I read it again and really liked it. Now, on my third read, mumbledy-mumbledy years later, I really, really did NOT like it. Though it did get better as it went along.

In the first half or so, though, I kept wanting to yell at all the insipid people with their insipid lives and their insipid minds, “Is any single one of you capable of talking about something of actual INTEREST??” The shallow superficiality, and the way people could talk for hours, day after day, about a couple of paragraphs in a letter, just made me want to throw the book at the wall. And the way things worked out in the end, for all the major characters, seemed awfully contrived. (SPOILER ALERT:) Mrs. Churchill’s death is awfully handy, for example, the way it clears the way for Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

So I found the book frustrating and kind of boring, and way too handy.

Sense and Sensibility

But speaking of contrived! (I read Sense & Sensibility third, but I’m saving the best till last, heh.) While there was plenty of angst and drama in this book, the resolution of it all was so implausible that I was grinding my teeth by the end. Again, the two final pairings were simply handy, but they did not make sense to me at all.

(If you haven’t read the book and don’t want spoilers, maybe you can just skip this whole part.) While the characters of all the women, including Elinor and Marianne, were quite well developed, the character of Colonel Brandon was barely developed by the end, while Edward Ferrars remained nothing but a pale, pale ghost. Even if these guys were okay characters, there was no reason on earth that either of the sisters should have fallen for either of them. I mean, would Marianne really have fallen in love with Brandon, even after she became wiser? (And for that matter, would he really have fallen in love with her?) And Elinor was so strong, with such backbone, that it’s beyond me to imagine how she could have fallen in love with the pale ghost, though I can imagine how he could have fallen for her. It just. wasn’t. plausible.

So no. This one simply didn’t work for me. Even if I had Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman in my head through the whole book.

 

Pride and Prejudice

And once again, I discovered that it truly wasn’t hype. Pride and Prejudice really, really was the best book of these three, and frankly, one of the best books I’ve read, period. That’s not because of Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle either. (If the quartet mentioned above couldn’t sell me on Sense and Sensibility, these two probably wouldn’t manage it with this book either.) It’s like all of the flaws in the other two books are almost consciously contradicted in this one.

The characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, for example. We know them so well by the end; we’ve gotten into their minds, we’ve seen them mature and grow — they are extremely well developed. I might want Jane to be a little less saintly and Mr. Bingley to have considerably more backbone and discernment, but Elizabeth and Darcy? Beautifully developed. The Gardiners are great characters, too. Mr. Collins is a bit of a caricature, as is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but the plausibly practical Charlotte Lucas adds a nice balance to them.

The whole plot is plausible, the entire way through! Even when Darcy seems to miraculously save the day where it comes to Wickham and Lydia, that’s not just contrived as a way to wipe away any final doubts Elizabeth might have about him. There are good and plausible reasons why he does what he does, and his actions fit with other things we’ve already learned in the plot and fit with the changes we’ve already begun to see in his character. Every chance meeting fits into all the other events without feeling at all contrived. And the resolutions of the problems also seem plausible, and the characters seem to fit together for very good reasons. And the ones who don’t — Lydia and Wickham — well, we know exactly why they’re together, and that’s all part of the plausible plot too.

So of the three books, the only one I really liked is Pride and Prejudice. Unless Jane Austen really outdid herself in the other three books (and I’ve never gotten the impression that that’s the case), I’d say that this was the pinnacle of her achievement.

 

Reading Through the Bookcase: Isaac Asimov

As I’ve mentioned already, I often have just a few books from a set rather than the whole shebang. And this, alas, is true for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. I only have the original three (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), and then the first sequel to them (Foundation’s Edge). I knew I didn’t have the fifth (Foundation and Earth), and until recently, I didn’t even know that there had also been two prequels (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation). However! I had never actually managed to get through the trilogy, even though I’d started it a couple of times, so l am very proud that I’ve finally done it. And I’ll get the other books as soon as I can. I am really wanting to read them.

My only Asimov novelsFirst, it was fascinating how it was possible to tell that the early books really were written several decades ago. Changes in spellings, hyphenation, and usage might be subtle, but they are definitely there.

Meanwhile, another couple of things made me chuckle. The first was the portrayal of women. This seems to me to be somewhat typical of the earlier SF writers. Even the women (probably called “girls”) with brains are a bit…cutesy. They might know rocket science, but they still tend to gush when they talk and get pretty emotional. And be a bit dismissed by the men, who shrug women’s minds off as rather incomprehensible. I was encouraged, though, about Harla Branno, the female mayor of Terminus (the Foundation planet) in the fourth book, because she had a lot of authority and tended to be quite intimidating. She never gushed. So Asimov had learned a few things by the end.

But speaking of learning. I kept wanting to yell, “Stop explaining everything!” Another thing that made me chuckle even while it exasperated me was that most conversations seemed to be explanations of how something worked or some mathematical principle or other. (People really don’t talk like that, most of the time.) There was rather a lot of theory, and in many cases, the dialogue just seemed to be a substitute for the narrative, to avoid the whole thing sounding like a treatise. Granted, some parts were worse for this than others, so the books weren’t all like that. But it did seem to me that the emphasis was far more on the ideas than on the development and expression of story. I think (I’d need to test this idea) that that was probably more true of the earlier SF writers than the later ones, and that the later ones came in more with the idea of telling a good story first of all.

But still! I loved the idea of psychohistory, the science of very large populations and how their progress through history can be predicted. I really enjoyed following those early stages and watching the Foundation evolve from a society of encyclopedists to traders I think, in fact, that that’s why I kept getting stalled in the second book over the yaers. I really hated the idea of the Mule and the disruption of the tale of the psychohistorical progress of the Foundation through its thousand years. I was much more interested in seeing all the theoretical stages that a population would go through than in seeing what would happen if they were interrupted.

I was glad when things seemed to have gotten back on track by the end of Second Foundation. And I quite enjoyed Foundation’s Edge…except…

I had checked Wikipedia to find out how many sequels there were, and while reading about them, discovered that at some point, Asimov decided to set the Foundation books in the same universe as his Robot books (none of which I have read) and also to integrate other standalone novels as well. (Including The Stars Like Dust, which I also read this time.) So as I progressed through Foundation’s Edge, it really started seeming to me that the book was really written just to set up the relationship of the Foundation books to the Robot books.

And I didn’t actually like that. I have vague recollections of other writers who have done this–tried to integrate all of their books into a single universe and timeline–and I had found it really awkward and, eventually, contrived. I wanted the story of the fourth book to stand on its own merits and not merely be a quest that led to an explanation of how the Robot books eventually led to the Galactic Empire that collapsed during the Foundation books.

I enjoyed The Stars Like Dust, partly because it really seemed to stand alone (rather than having to be seen as what it was later conceived to be, a part of that whole encompassing history). It seemed to have more of a real story arc and somewhat more space adventure than the other books. Yet I am still interested in reading Foundation & Earth and then the prequels, just to get the whole story as Asimov finally envisioned it.

So the Asimov books are done, except for a collection (Gold) that is stacked differently on the shelves and will be read later. On to Jane Austen!

Reading Through the Bookcase: Douglas Adams

So, Douglas Adams. (Yes, I’ll remain in the A’s for a while yet.) You may recall that after three Margaret Atwood books, I wasn’t really in the mood for Jane Austen, the next person in the fiction bookcase. So I switched to the SF&F stack, and lo and behold: there was The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. As is so often the case with me, I do not in fact have a complete set of Douglas Adams books. (I don’t even have all the Hitchhiker books, except on my Sony Reader, though I do have The Hitchhiker’s Giude to the Galaxy. It’s just in another bookcase.) I have kind of a “spotty” collection of almost everything. Which means that of the two Dirk Gently books, Tea-Time — the second of the two — is to be the only Douglas Adams book in this project.

I had read both books, of course, long ago. But I had no idea why I had liked Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and had not really liked Tea-Time. In fact, even while I was reading Tea-Time on this occasion, I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t liked the book the first time. It’s very much Douglas Adams, with his humour and the weird goings on. (And Thor! Thor and Odin! I’m a Norse mythology freak — of course I love something with Thor and Odin in it. Though I kept wondering why Loki was nowhere to be found.) I love the idea of a holistic detective agency, and Dirk Gently not always getting where he wants to go but getting where he needs to be.

Anyway, it was lots of fun. Until the end. I had been so looking forward to finding out how everything was going to be resolved — and then suddenly, everyone was going about their business and getting on with life and I still had no idea how the Pretty Big Problems in the story had been resolved! I don’t feel like rereading the last couple of chapters again to see what I apparently missed, but it seemed to me that we went from Dirk Gently saying, “We have a problem” at the end of one chapter to everything being over and tidied up in the next. If there was some solution worked out, it went by so quickly that I missed it.

So I think that must have been it, way back the first time I read it. Everything got resolved, but it was never clear how. Or something. At least I enjoyed the book up to that point, but sheesh. What a letdown.

And where was Loki?? Harumph!

I did stay in the SF&F bookcase after that, so I’ve been plunged into Isaac Asimov books for a few days now. I will be talking about the Foundation books soon. (Though of course, me being me, I only have the original trilogy and its sequel, but not the two prequels and the last book. Surprised?)

Still working my way through the A’s. :-)

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