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
I 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.
Which 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.